Wednesday, 31 March 2010


Now, what about the massacre at Ahmici, where the Croats slaughtered Muslims and the man mainly responsible got 25 years in jail? Can you name him? I bet you can't. And then there was the Bosnian Muslim camp at Celebici, where Serbian prisoners were beaten, tortured and murdered. Had you ever heard of that, either? Neither of these is an isolated example. Furthermore, each is in a very specific and very much living tradition, respectively that of the Ustasha and that of the Handschar Division, both mysteriously airbrushed from history.

In the words of John Laughland at the time of the arrest of Radovan Karadzic (emphasis added):

The arrest of Radovan Karadzic in Serbia has provided yet another occasion for all the tired old propaganda about the Balkans wars to be taken out of the cupboard and given one last airing. In particular, the war is presented as one between a Serb aggressor and an innocent victim, the Bosnian Muslims, and the former is accused of practising genocide against the latter. Even if one accepts that crimes against humanity were committed during the Balkan wars, it should be obvious that both these claims are absurd.

First, the Serbs were no more the aggressors in the Bosnian civil war than Abraham Lincoln was an aggressor in the American Civil War. The Yugoslav army was in place all over Bosnia-Herzegovina because that republic was part of Yugoslavia. Bosnian Muslims (like Croats) left the army in droves and set up their own militia instead, as part of their drive for independence from Belgrade. This meant that the Yugoslav army lost its previous strongly multiethnic character and became largely Serb. It did not mean that Serb forces entered the territory of Bosnia, or even that the Serbs attacked the hapless Bosnian Muslims.

The accusation of aggression is intended to introduce by the back door an allegation which in fact has vanished from modern international criminal justice. Although the crime of waging an aggressive war was pronounced to be the supreme international crime at Nuremberg, it has been dropped from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia which will presumably try Karadzic once he is extradited to The Hague, and even the new International Criminal Court (also in The Hague) does not for the time being have jurisdiction over it.

The accusation has the effect of condemning the Bosnian Serb war effort at its very origins (in terms of ius ad bellum) independently of any condemnation for the way the war was fought (ius in bello). In fact, the Bosnian Serb war effort was no more or less legitimate than the Bosnian Muslim war effort. The Muslims wanted to secede from Yugoslavia (and were egged on to do this by the Americans and the Europeans) while the Bosnian Serbs wanted to stay in Yugoslavia. It was as simple as that.

In my view, it is not possible to adjudicate such matters using the criminal law since, as political questions, they transcend it. But the fact that the Muslims blatantly cheated by holding the vote on an independence referendum at 3 a.m. after the Bosnian Serb deputies in the Bosnian parliament had all been told to go home, and the fact that the Bosnian Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, remained in office throughout 1992 long after his term had expired and long after he should have handed over to a Serb, meant that the Bosnian Serbs had excellent grounds for believing that the Bosnian Muslim secession was quite simply a coup d’état.

In any case, once the Muslims had seized power in Sarajevo, the Bosnian Serbs sought not to conquer the whole republic but instead simply to fight for the secession of their territories from Muslim control. Of course atrocities were committed against civilians during this period, especially ethnic cleansing. But the same phenomenon is observed, I believe, and by definition, in every single war in which a new state is created, whether it is the creation of Pakistan in 1947 or the creation in 1974 of what later became the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. If the Muslims had the right unilaterally to secede from Yugoslavia, why should the Bosnian Serbs not have had the right unilaterally to secede from the new state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had never before existed as a state, and to which the Bosnian Serbs had no loyalty whatever?

Second, the Bosnian Serbs are accused (and two have been convicted) of committing genocide against the Bosnian Muslims in the massacre perpetrated at Srebrenica. Let us leave aside for a moment the Serb claims that the numbers of people killed in that summer of 1995 has been artificially inflated for propaganda purposes; let us also leave aside the undoubted fact that the Bosnian Muslims were using the UN safe haven of Srebrenica as a safe haven from which to conduct constant attacks against the Serb villages surrounding the town, during which many atrocities were committed against Serb civilians. (The commander of the Muslim forces, Nasir Oric, was released by the ICTY in February.)

What is clear is that the Srebrenica massacre cannot possibly be described as genocide. Even the most ardent pro-Muslim propagandists agree that the victims of the massacre there were all men. The Bosnian Serbs claim that they were combatants (although that is certainly not an excuse for killing them) but the point is that an army bent on genocide would precisely not have singled out men for execution but would have killed women too. The Srebrenica massacre may well have been a crime against humanity but it is impossible to see how it can be categorised as genocide.

Unfortunately, there is a very clear political reason why it has been so categorised. The Muslim president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haris Silaijdzic, said carefully on CNN the day Karadzic was captured that Karadzic’s trial was only the beginning of the process by which justice would be done in Bosnia. He said that there were hundreds of thousands of Muslims who had been ethnically cleansed by “Karadzic and Milosevic” and that their project therefore remained in force. The clear implication of what he was saying was this: if the very existence of the Bosnian Serb republic (the autonomous region within Bosnia carved out from the republic during the civil war) is found, in a court of law, to have had as its president a man, Karadzic, who is convicted of genocide in the process of creating it, then its status would be illegitimate and it should be abolished. The Muslims continue to claim control over the whole of the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina, while the Serbs merely want the preservation of their considerable autonomy within it.

In other words, far from bringing peace to the Balkans, it is quite possible that a conviction of Karadzic for genocide will reopen the Dayton settlement and egg the Muslims on to claim control over the Serb republic too. Under such circumstances, it is inevitable that the Bosnian Serbs would try to proclaim formal secession from Bosnia, just as the Kosovo Albanians did from Serbia.


  1. What about the Chetniks? You do not seem to want to mention them?

  2. There no longer are any. Unlike the Ustasha or the Handschar Division.