War Crime Politics and the ICTY

Šešelj Rides Again

The trial is essentially a series of unfolding disasters.”

— Marko Milanovic, Radio Free Europe, Nov 20, 2014

He has been released, at least temporarily. Vojislav Šešelj found a warm welcome in the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) headquarters in Zemun after the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had tired of him. As he boarded a plane to Serbia on November 12, he proclaimed that he would first deal with politics, then health. It was a sound assessment. Politics seems to be shoring up his health.

His treatment at the hands of officials in The Hague has not augured well for the conduct of war crimes proceedings in surroundings of supposedly steely objectivity. He submitted to the Tribunal in 2003 facing charges associated with the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. For more than a decade, he has existed in a form of orchestrated legal purgatory, a near cinematic twilight zone furiously fought over with disagreements over health care and treatment in custody. Charged, but not formally granted a verdict, he has been busy gathering his ingredients of patriotic mistrust. “I won the battle against The Hague tribunal. And that was my goal.”

In The Hague, he went on hunger strike, protesting the appointment of his designated lawyer. He was held in contempt for revealing the names of protected witnesses, with whom he has no truck. If there was a regulation, he was bound to buck it if not break it. But this near picaresque disturber had something else in store.

Last year, as the ICTY was finally readying itself for a verdict, Frederik Harhoff, one of three members of the trial chamber hearing the case, was outed as a critic of the ICTY President Theodor Meron. “Have any American or Israeli officials ever exerted pressure on the American presiding judge… to ensure a change of direction?” Judges were being rushed in reaching their decisions; pressure was being exerted. The Danish paper Berlingske published the destructive gem, and Šešelj capitalised.

This stood to reason. The emphasis from Meron, according to Harhoff, was that the Tribunal was getting cosy with the military and security forces. The humanitarian message, according to international law expert William Schabas, was losing its humanitarian allure, replaced by a greater emphasis on protecting the interests of those in uniform. Šešelj had no reputation to lose; but the Tribunal was doing its best to lose its own.

Harhoff was removed from the panel, leaving open the way for a new judge who has, as yet, to come to terms with the whole scope of the trial. Nor were judges unaware of the accused’s skilful armoury of criticism. Judge Mandiaye Niang, who otherwise disagreed with the temporary release order, admitted that, “the Accused also expressed a very concise legal criticism of the Chamber.” The criticism centred on the failure “in its obligation to hold regular status conferences as set out in Rule 65 bis of the Rules of Procedure and Evidence.” ((“The Prosecutor vs Vojislav Šešelj,” ICTY. )) Not all of Šešelj’s behaviour assumed scatter gun volatility. When sharp, he proved a difficult customer.

Then came the issue of ailing health. In June 2014, consultations were being held by Tribunal members “with a view to provisional release proprio motu of the Accused.” ((“The Prosecutor vs Vojislav Šešelj,” ICTY. )) On November 6, the Tribunal issued a court order approving his release noting merely that the judges had “received additional confidential information that points to a deterioration in the accused’s health.” The failure to have regular status conferences potentially contributed to a turn for the worse. The theatrical twist here was that Šešelj refused to allow his medical files to be disclosed officially. ((“The Prosecutor vs Vojislav Šešelj,” ICTY. ))

His habit of having volatile relations is a long one. He fought with nationalist bite in the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, but the battles in The Hague saw an exchange of the gun and battle plan for the harshly directed word. Often vulgar, he described the presiding judge of the Tribunal in an infamous 2005 letter as having one solitary “right” – that of performing oral sex on him.

Serbian Foreign Minister Iva Da?i? has found himself distancing himself from the leader of the Radicals (SRS). “Is he a state official? Are there those in Croatia who talk about the Ustasha? We (Croatia and Serbia) should relax our relations and not complicate them.” ((“Hague Tribunal should be abolished – FM,” B92.)) Both countries have eggs that went off a long time ago, but they won’t be cracked any time too soon. The only option is to deal with them through an imperfect process of isolation.

Da?i? makes the point that Šešelj is a problem for everybody, history’s restless rogue. He rails against the Tribunal in The Hague. He blusters against Serbian foes with whom he has scores to settle. He persists in dreaming of the image that remains frozen in anachronistic space: a Greater Serbia.

Croatian representatives in the European Parliament have been busying themselves with getting a resolution condemning the fire-breathing leader of the Serbian Radicals. Tonino Picula, former Croatian European Parliament member, finds his stamina all too developed for a man labouring under a terminal illness. Croatia’s Foreign Minister Vesna Pusi? would rather see him “back to his detention cell.”

The politics of the Balkans tends to veer between mythology and grand, blood-filled theatre. All sides claim injurious injury and scores that remain as unsettled as village vendettas. Introducing external legal scrutiny into this has been a precarious exercise, the intrusive judge mulling over the spilt blood of a broken family. Šešelj is all too aware of this. “For someone in poor health, he obviously displays exceptional political dynamism.”

Hate does not merely assume sovereign proportions where desperation exists; it becomes its own source of nourishment. Poor incomes and high prices provide impetus for nationalist formulas. It is for that very reason that Šešelj rides again. But in doing so, he has left a broken Tribunal in need of desperate repair. Or, as some of its critics contend, abolishment.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.