Controlling History: The Sordid Story of the International Tribunal for Yugoslavia and NATO Aggression

After having stoked the civil wars and violent dismantling of Yugoslavia of 1991-1995, the United States—with the help of the ICTY—stoked a crisis in Kosovo which it used to force a war against Serbia, a war which enabled the U.S.-led NATO bloc to occupy Kosovo and later separate it from Serbia, and left Serbia a crushed and subservient state. The construction and use of the ICTY to demonize Serbs was part of the war-making plan, as the ICTY called for refusing to negotiate a settlement with, and pursuing as criminals, Serb targets.

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson

The complacency and arrogance of NATO’s leaders was extraordinary…{ }…To people who had been subjected to Western colonial rule — most of the non-Western world — NATO’s self-satisfied assumption of a new global mission sounded an awful lot like the old ‘white man’s burden.’ NATO was the old imperial club, back together again with a plan to ensure continuing rule over the world’s backward people.

— George Szamuely

No citizen of any country in the world would consider themselves fairly tried before a court that was paid for, staffed and assisted by private citizens or corporations which had a direct stake in the outcome of the trial and who were, themselves, in practical terms, immune from that court.

— Christopher Black

With the recent verdicts on Radovan Karadzic and Vojislav Šešelj, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has been in the news again. This has rekindled the usual revisionist history of the NATO bombing of civilian Belgrade courtesy of Bill Clinton, and it has entered discussion again too, because Hillary has bragged of encouraging her husband to bomb the Yugoslav capital. It is apparently seen as a positive for her presidential campaign. The persistent theme of mainstream media on this topic was that the US and NATO had to intervene to stop a genocide. I’ve heard this so many times now, and in conversation, that I’ve become almost numb and paralyzed with a kind of mental fatigue born of repeating the same contrary facts over and over.

Today so deeply ingrained is the propaganda on this history that even those somewhat critical of the obvious floundering incompetence of the ICTY tend to drift off into perspectives that align with the U.S. state department version of events.

The real story was summarized by Diana Johnstone reporting on the Karadzic verdict:

The other political result is to remind the world that if you get into a fight with the United States and NATO, you will not only lose, but will be treated as a common criminal. The US-led NATO war machine is always innocent, its adversaries are always guilty. The Roman Empire led the leaders it defeated into slavery. The United States Empire puts them in jail.

The revisionist version has been reduced to cartoon level simplicity: Milosevic was the “Butcher of the Balkans” and the Serbs were the new Nazi genocidaires. And the US and NATO acted only after great hand wringing and attempts at peace brokering to stop the mass slaughter. Karadzic and Mladic were sort of sub “butchers” and all of them must be guilty before the fact.

It was the war parties in the U.S. and Sarajevo that profited from and brought about the Srebrenica massacre. As Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and E.U. envoy to the former Yugoslavia, once remarked, ‘there would be no peace in Washington until there was war in the Balkans’.

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson

The Milosevic trial was a fiasco, a kind of kangaroo court in which an essentially NATO court (read U.S.) was intent on justifying the Western subjugation of a nation (and breaking it apart into small dependent client states) and using that pretext as a trial balloon for NATO expansion. The process of breaking up the last nominally socialist state in eastern Europe began, really, in 1989. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was resistant to the idea of a western free market economy. They were inexplicably defiant and proud of their socialist history and of their independence from the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Such uppity attitudes very quickly must be dealt with by the Empire. The goal was to privatize Yugoslavia and control its resources. This is always the goal.

According to Michael Parenti:

In November 1990, the Bush administration pressured Congress into passing the 1991 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, which provided that any part of Yugoslavia failing to declare independence within six months would lose U.S. financial support. The law demanded separate elections in each of the six Yugoslav republics, and mandated U.S. State Department approval of both election procedures and results as a condition for any future aid. Aid would go only to the separate republics, not to the Yugoslav government, and only to those forces whom Washington defined as ‘democratic,’  meaning right-wing, free-market, separatist parties.

Running alongside this was the equally important ideological subjugation of this last corner of socialism in Europe — and that meant, as it usually does in U.S. foreign policy, supporting the most reactionary factions in the area. In this case Croatia’s Hitler loving leader Franjo Tudjman, the hyper-nationalist and fanatic KLA in Kosovo, and Bosnian Islamic fundamentalist Alija Izetbegovic (also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a rabid admirer of Hitler). It is worth a google search of Ante Pavelic, Ustase, and Jasenovic…and Archbishop Stepinac. This will provide an essential backdrop to the events of the nineties. It is a history rarely discussed by the western bourgeoisie. Stepanic was, in a grim side bar detail, later beatified by that most reactionary of Popes, John Paul (Karol Józef Wojty?a).

The most mendacious and venal journalism from the West came at the hands of Misha Glenny, David Reiff, Ed Vulliamy, Florence Hartman, Tim Judah, and Marlise Simons, though there were many others. These were the principle stenographers for Empire, the “liberal” voices of deception and duplicity that have shaped the master narrative on the Balkan conflict for over a decade. And among the most egregious supporters of this narrative were liberals and leftists who uncritically and, in some ways, inexplicably swallowed the propaganda whole.

In an opinion piece in the Guardian entitled “Lies of the Vigilantes” John Laughland wrote:

Ever since the end of the cold war, the US and its allies have acted like vigilantes, claiming the right to bomb other countries in the name of humanity. The Kosovo war was the most important action taken on this basis and, as such, the curtain-raiser for Iraq. Fought, like the Iraq war, without UN approval, it was waged partly because the international community felt it should have intervened more robustly against Yugoslavia over Bosnia. It now turns out that Serbia was not in control in Bosnia after all. The ruling therefore punctures a decade-and-a-half of lies in support of the doctrine of military and judicial interventionism.

This fictional narrative has now found traction in part because of Hollywood. There are few TV shows or films with Serb protagonists. No, instead the very word “Serb” is now synonymous with ethnic cleansing and genocide and criminality. Mention “Kosovo” and most of the public thinks of a plucky little nation, new and proud. Not a drug and human trafficking gangster enclave entirely dependent on U.S. aid.

As pointed out by Greg Elich in his article “Destruction of a Prosperous Nation State:  The Fall of Yugoslavia and the US-NATO Led War”:

The end of the war in Bosnia accomplished the Western goals of military occupation and political and economic control over the newly minted state that became a colony in all but name. From the Western standpoint, there remained the problem that Yugoslavia, then comprised of Serbia and Montenegro, with its socialist-dominated economy was still in place. A new pretext would have to be invented for war, and that was found in Western support for the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army.

Almost nothing one reads in mainstream media on Slobodan Milosevic will be true. In fact, most times the literal opposite will be true. I highly recommend Diana Johnstone’s Fool’s Crusade, George Szamuely’s Bombs for Peace, and Michael Parenti’s To Kill A Nation. The Szamuely book, being the most recent, is also perhaps the most comprehensive and thorough. But the culmination of the ideological project of the U.S. was the Milosevic trial. Christine Amanpour appeared nightly on CNN touting it as the “trial of the century” — never once mentioning that she was married to Jamie Ruben, Clinton’s right hand man in the war. But things began to go wrong for the prosecution right from the start.

Edward S. Herman, in his review of John Laughland’s book Travesty, on the trial, writes:

This political court was organized mainly by the United States and Britain, countries that now freely attack others, but seek the fiction that will give their aggression a de jure as well as quasi-moral cover. For this reason the rules of the ICTY stood Nuremberg on its head. The Nuremberg Tribunal tried the Nazi leaders for their planning and carrying out the “supreme international crime” of aggression. But the ICTY Statute doesn’t even mention crimes against peace (although with Kafkaesque hypocrisy it claims to be aiming at protecting the peace). Thus, Laughland notes, “instead of applying existing international law, the ICTY has effectively overturned it.”

The tribunal for Yugoslavia, at The Hague, was not formed by international agreement, but was formed ad hoc by the U.S. in conjunction with a few compliant members of the Security Council. The stated intention was to get convictions, because the platform was created with guilt already assumed. Victims’ rights meant there was no justice without conviction. If this sounds rather Kafka-like, well, it is.

Milosevic was kidnapped (not very legal, that) and taken to the Hague where after the fact the tribunal scrambled to find charges that would most quickly lead to the desired guilty verdict. Problem was, as Amanpour found out, the case against Milosevic was non-existent. So, CNN just as quickly as they had trumpeted this trial of the century, dropped it from the airwaves. And suddenly Amanpour was off to another crisis somewhere else. Milosevic, himself a lawyer by training, was dismantling the prosecution’s case. Ah…wait, let’s prohibit Milosevic from defending himself, and replace him with a lawyer formally on the prosecution side. Great idea. (Again, if this seems Kafka-like, it is).

According to Edward S. Herman and David Peterson in their multiple part series entitled “The Dismantling of Yugoslavia”:

“A key element in the myth structure holds that Milosevic incited the Serbs to violence, setting loose the genie of Serb nationalism from the bottle that had contained it under Tito. During the prosecution’s opening statement at his trial, a videotape was played of Milosevic uttering the words ‘No one should dare beat you’ at the Hall of Culture in Pristina in April 1987. It was that phrase…and the response of others to it that gave this accused the taste or a better taste of power, maybe the first realisation of a dream,” prosecutor Geoffrey Nice told the court.

With these words Milosevic ‘had broken the taboo of [Tito] against invoking nationalism,’ Dusko Doder and Louise Branson write, ‘a taboo credited with submerging ethnic hatreds and holding Yugoslavia together for more than forty years…. The initial impact was catastrophic: rabid ethnic nationalism swept all regions of Yugoslavia like a disease.’But neither these remarks by Milosevic nor his June 28, 1989, speech on the six-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo had anything like the characteristics imputed to them. Instead Milosevic used both speeches to appeal to multi-ethnic tolerance, accompanied by a warning against the threat posed to Yugoslavia by nationalism—hanging like a sword over their heads all the time.

It has always fascinated me that so many leftists accepted the myths propagated by the U.S. in this matter. People who saw the invasion of Iraq as illegal and imperialistic, still managed to view the Balkan intervention as justifiable and humanitarian. Perhaps part of that is that this was the war of a Democratic president. I suspect, though, as Szamuely noted, that this is simply the newest incarnation of “white man’s burden.” The educated white liberal class love nothing more than an opportunity to demonstrate their designer compassion and rescue the backward East. Couple that to the fact that Serbo-Croation as a language uses mostly the Cyrillic alphabet, like Russian (both being Slavic tongues) and all things that smack of Russia must be controlled. It is the Orientalism factor in the ideological domination of the former FRY.

In any event, the mythology still has traction and sadly the further from the crimes of NATO and Bill Clinton that we get, the less likely it is that the truth of this debacle will ever find favor with the general public. It is also worth noting that a good many leftist writers (Chris Hedges is a primary example) still get the entire story wrong. The lurid propaganda of rape camps and concentration camps were all discredited long ago, but they continue on in the popular imagination, regardless. It is as if Yellow Cake from Niger were still thought of as credible. The ICTY has turned the idea of international law into something that, in fact, goes far beyond Kafka. Indictments are kept secret and then suddenly announced without warning. Testimony can take place by videotape and hearsay is readily admitted, and there is no jury and judges often oversee several related trials at the same time (prejudicial you say? Uh, yeah), and wiretaps which would be illegal in any normal court are admitted without evidence of provenance. And worst of all there is no real bail procedure and defendants can and do spend years awaiting trial. Seselj, in fact, spent thirteen years in jail before the conclusion of his trial. But these details matter little because the tribunal is prone to changing its rules as it goes along.

Milosevic’s speeches, the ones often referred to as hyper nationalistic and authoritarian are quite the opposite. This is where I simply encourage people to find them, for they ‘can’ be found in translation, and read them yourselves. There “was” a country called Yugoslavia. And it was a vibrant and progressive place, socialist (despite many Trotskyist critiques suggesting lack of purity) and as just one example of what was lost, Chiara Bonfiglioli noted, apropos of women’s rights:

… socialist politics appeared progressive in comparison to the process of ‘retraditionalisation’ of gender relations which took place in the 1990s. As pointed out by feminist activists in the region, the egalitarian discourse promoted by socialist authorities was suddenly replaced during the break-up of Yugoslavia by the overtly sexist discourse of nationalist regimes, which portrayed women’s emancipation as an ‘unnatural’ effect of the socialist system. Women were represented in existentialist ways, as biological reproducers of the nation, while gendered and sexualised metaphors were used to construct essentialist national and ethnic identities (Ivekovi? and Mostov 2002).

And this is just one somewhat random example. Socialist Yugoslavia may have had a lot of issues, exactly as all countries do, but what replaced the FRY has been catastrophic. Not to mention the human cost and contamination from depleted uranium on the entire region.

According to Natasha Jokich Baldeck:

In May 1999 the United Nations have hidden from the public the report by Bakari Kante, head of the first mission of UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) about the environmental consequences of the bombing of Yugoslavia.

That UN report detailed NATO’s use of illegal depleted uranium bombs, which resulted in (along with bombing oil refineries and heavy metal producing plants) precipitous upticks in leukemia, miscarriages and birth defects. Robert Parsons wrote: “While NATO trumpeted on all sides about its ‘humanitarian intervention,’ the report we now talk about spoke of ecological disaster without precedent in European history.” Ljubica Vujadinovic noted that one study sited a doubling of cancer cases over a six year period following NATOs bombing.

An article by Christine Lamb in the Sunday Telegraph (UK) indicates that:

Thousands of European soldiers who served in Nato forces in Kosovo are to be tested for radiation after claims that they developed cancer through exposure to allied munitions.

RT, in March 2014, describes the NATO bombing of Belgrade:

In the course of the campaign, NATO launched 2,300 missiles at 990 targets and dropped 14,000 bombs, including depleted uranium bombs and cluster munitions (unexploded cluster bombs continued to pose a threat to people long after the campaign was over.) Over 2,000 civilians were killed, including 88 children, and thousands more were injured. Over 200,000 ethnic Serbs were forced to leave their homeland in Kosovo. …In what the alliance described as ‘collateral damage,’ its airstrikes destroyed more than 300 schools, libraries, and over 20 hospitals. At least 40,000 homes were either completely eliminated or damaged and about 90 historic and architectural monuments were ruined. That is not to mention the long-term harm caused to the region’s ecology and, therefore, people’s health, as well as the billion-dollar economic damage.

And this is called Humanitarian Intervention. Very few of these details make it into mainstream media news nor does it seem to affect much of the faux leftist discourse on this subject which would rather focus on the more titillating subjects invented by western propagandists. And mind you, these are low ball figures. Perhaps wildly low ball.

So, here we are in 2016 and two more “convictions” have been handed down. Christopher Black was lead counsel for Milosevic and nobody knows the story better. Here are some remarks made in the light of his time working on the trial of Slobodan Milosevic:

Among the many ironies of the NATO war against Yugoslavia was the role of the International Criminal Tribunal and its chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, elevated by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien to Canada’s highest court in 1999. It will be argued here that that award was entirely justified on the grounds of political service to the NATO powers, but a monumental travesty if the question of the proper administration of justice enters the equation. In fact, we will show that as Arbour and the Tribunal played a key role in expediting war crimes, an excellent case can be made that in a just world she would be in the dock rather than in judicial robes.

The moment of truth for Arbour and the Tribunal came in the midst of NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, when Arbour appeared, first, in an April 20 press conference with British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to receive from him documentation on Serb war crimes. Then on May 27, Arbour announced the indictment of Serb President Slobodan Milosevic and four of his associates for war crimes. The inappropriateness of a supposedly judicial body doing this in the midst of the Kosovo war, and when Germany, Russia, and other powers were trying to find a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, was staggering. …Arbour’s service to NATO in indicting Milosevic was the logical outcome of the Tribunal’s de facto control and purpose. It was established by the Security Council in the early 1990s to serve the Balkan policy ends of its dominant members, especially the United States. (China and Russia went along as silent and powerless partners, apparently in a trade-off for economic concessions.)

And its funding and interlocking functional relationship with the top NATO powers have made it NATO’s instrument. …In bombing Yugoslavia from March 24 into June 1999, NATO was guilty of the serious crime of violating the UN Charter requirement that it not use force without UN Security Council sanction. It was also guilty of criminal aggression in attacking a sovereign state that was not going beyond its borders. In its defense, NATO claimed that “humanitarian” concerns demanded these actions and thus justified seemingly serious law violations. Apart from the fact that this reply sanctions law violations on the basis of self-serving judgments that contradict the rule of law, it is also called into question on its own grounds by counter-facts. First, the NATO bombing made “an internal humanitarian problem into a disaster” in the words of Rollie Keith, the returned Canadian OSCE human rights monitor in Kosovo.

Second, the evidence is now clear that NATO refused to negotiate a settlement in Kosovo and insisted on a violent solution; that in the words of one State Department official, NATO deliberately “raised the bar” and precluded a compromise resolution because Serbia “needed to be bombed.” These counter-facts suggest that the alleged humanitarian basis of the law violations was a cover for starkly political and geopolitical objectives. …NATO was also guilty of more traditional war crimes, including some that the Tribunal had found indictable when carried out by Serbs. Thus on March 8, 1996, Serb leader Milan Martic was indicted for launching a rocket cluster-bomb attack on military targets in Zagreb in May 1995, on the ground that the rocket was “not designed to hit military targets but to terrorize the civilians of Zagreb.” The Tribunal report on the Croat Operation Storm in Krajina also provided solid evidence that a 48 hour Croat assault on the city of Knin was “shelling civilian targets,” with fewer than 250 of 3,000 shells striking military targets. But no indictments followed from this evidence or for any other raid.

The same case for civilian targeting could be made for numerous NATO bombing raids, as in the cluster-bombing of Nis on May 7, 1999, in which a market and hospital far from any military target were hit in separate strikes—but no indictment has yet been handed down against NATO.

But NATO was also guilty of the bombing of non-military targets as systematic policy. On March 26, 1999, General Wesley Clark said that “We are going to very systematically and progressively work on his military forces…[to see] how much pain he is willing to suffer.”….{ } NATO’s leaders, frustrated in attacking the Serb military machine, quite openly turned to smashing the civil society of Serbia as their means of attaining the quick victory desired before the 50th Anniversary celebration of NATO’s founding.

Although this amounted to turning the civilian population of Serbia into hostages and attacking them and their means of sustenance—in gross violation of the laws of war—Arbour and her Tribunal not only failed to object to and prosecute NATO’s leaders for war crimes, by indicting Milosevic on May 27 they gave NATO a moral cover permitting escalated attacks on the hostage population. Arbour and the Tribunal thus present us with the amazing spectacle of an institution supposedly organized to contain, prevent, and prosecute for war crimes actually knowingly facilitating them. Furthermore, petitions submitted to the Tribunal during Arbour’s tenure had called for prosecution of the leaders of NATO, including Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, for the commission of war crimes. If she had been a prosecutor in Canada, Britain or the United States, she would have been subject to disbarment for considering and then accepting a job from a person she had been asked to charge. But Arbour was elevated to the Supreme Court of Canada by Chretien with hardly a mention of this conflict of interest and immorality. In this post-Orwellian New World Order we are told that we live under the rule of law, but as Saint Augustine once said, “There are just laws and there are unjust laws, and an unjust law is no law at all.”

The Clinton administration wanted to destroy Yugoslavia. They’ve admitted that. They even launched a couple cruise missiles at Milosevic’s home toward the end of 1998, but Milosevic wasn’t home. The ever ghoulish Wesley Clark took every opportunity to brag of his macho meeting with Milosevic. The intent in all this was clear. And yet nobody involved on the NATO side will ever be indicted. Madelaine Albright complained that “something had to happen in Serbia so that NATO could get involved.” This is the usual story for U.S. foreign policy — create demon leaders, butchers and madmen and manufacture an “incident” (or two, or three) and then attack, destroy, and occupy. Steal and take control. And then, make sure to control the narrative, and in this case that meant the invention of a western funded (ah, George Soros again, among many others) court to provide convictions that would tally up with the NATO and U.S. scenario. Milosevic died in custody. I’m sure of natural causes (cough cough, clears throat…).

And now Karadzic, a doctor, and a very old man, will also die in custody.

In a speech on St. Vitus Day, June 28, 1989, Slodoban Milosevic stated in part:

Equal and a harmonious relations among Yugoslav peoples are a necessary condition for the existence of Yugoslavia and for it to find its way out of the crisis and, in particular, they are a necessary condition for its economic and social prosperity. In this respect Yugoslavia does not stand out from the social milieu of the contemporary, particularly the developed, world. This world is more and more marked by national tolerance, national co-operation, and even national equality. The modern economic and technological, as well as political and cultural development, has guided various peoples toward each other, has made them interdependent and increasingly has made them equal as well [medjusobno ravnopravni]. Equal and united people can above all become a part of the civilization toward which mankind is moving.

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. He's had plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. He has taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.