Old Europe

Jeremy Harding

  • Indictment at The Hague: The Milosevic Regime and the Crimes of the Balkan Wars by Norman Cigar and Paul Williams
    New York, 339 pp, US $24.95, July 2002, ISBN 0 8147 1626 1
  • Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia by Brendan Simms
    Penguin, 464 pp, £8.99, July 2002, ISBN 0 14 028983 6
  • Under Orders: War Crimes in Kosovo by Fred Abrahams
    Human Rights Watch, 593 pp, £18.00, October 2001, ISBN 1 56432 264 5
  • Milosevic: A Biography by Adam LeBor
    Bloomsbury, 386 pp, £20.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 7475 6090 0

In 1992, the UN Security Council opened a dossier on breaches of humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions in the former Yugoslavia. Paragraph 5 of UNSC Resolution 771 called on all states or humanitarian organisations with knowledge of such violations to pass it on to the Security Council. These were the early days when Bosnia was high on Clinton’s list of priorities (it remained a priority for many in his first Administration long after the President had lost interest), and the US made several submissions.

One of these, which appears in an appendix to Indictment at The Hague, contains evidence from a Bosnian doctor who worked at Trnopolje, in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina. Trnopolje was a ‘labour camp’ run by the Serbs. Here they detained able-bodied Bosnian males, and assembled women, children, the elderly and the sick for transit. The doctor’s submission details many abuses which took place there, including rape and beatings. It also states that the staff at the camp clinic kept records on the patients. Circumventing camp regulations, they used a code to signal that a patient had been mistreated. ‘Several times,’ the submission goes on, ‘the employees of the clinic came under suspicion, and their lives were threatened. One of the female aides . . . was repeatedly interrogated and told to stop working at the clinic, but she stayed.’ It’s thought that her presence saved the lives of the other staff on several occasions.

Norman Cigar and Paul Williams argue that war crimes prosecutions are necessary not simply for the well-rehearsed reasons – ending cultures of impunity, achieving ‘closure’, restoring faith in due process – but because they seek to establish individual responsibility and, in doing so, ‘reinforce the principle that nations or entire populations . . . are not collectively responsible’ for criminal acts in wartime. A war crimes tribunal, properly handled, recognises that the Serbian woman in the clinic at Trnopolje, and others whose innocence is less obvious, are not to be tarred with the same brush as the accused themselves.

Williams and Cigar believed for some years before the indictment was finally drawn up during the Nato campaign in Kosovo in 1999 that Slobodan Milosevic should stand trial at The Hague. Cigar is squarely in the anti-Milosevic camp: he has served as an analyst for Army Intelligence at the Pentagon and as a consultant to the International Criminal Tribunal itself. He now teaches in the strategic studies department at a US Marine Corps college. Williams was a legal adviser to the Bosnian Government during the Dayton negotiations and to the Kosovo Albanian delegation at Rambouillet a few weeks before the bombing began.

Cigar and Williams’s expert little book deals with the principles that would have to be borne in mind at The Hague, and the evidence that would have to be submitted, in order to secure Milosevic’s conviction. Brendan Simms, for his part, is a staunch defender of the Bosnian cause, or at least its dedicated mourner. He has written a polemic against John Major’s Government and David Owen, the EU mediator in the remains of Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1995, for their connivance in the ferocious dismantling of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is keen on Major’s New Labour successors, and confident that Tony Blair’s support for the Milosevic indictment ‘hastened the Serb retreat from Kosovo’.

What can true believers, so eager for Milosevic’s appearance at The Hague, make of the progress to date? Since he was delivered up, he’s taken the only available course, short of craven apology: refuse to recognise the court, but wring what you can out of the situation. He’s appealed to the home crowd by comparing Nato to the Nazis. He’s grandstanded for ‘oppressed peoples’ everywhere – Serbs, above all. To dissuade the world of his individual responsibility for much of what happened in the former Yugoslavia, he has said that it is ‘Serbia . . . the people, the nation’ which is actually on trial.

He has also undertaken some tricky cross-examinations. A year ago, he made a fool of a key Kosovo Albanian witness for the prosecution, a former Yugoslav Communist League apparatchik, who got the date of Milosevic’s inflammatory speech at Kosovo-Polje wrong by two years (easily done). The same witness, Milosevic was quick to remind the court, had called the tanks into the province in 1981 to crush support for an autonomous Kosovo republic. Despite his scorn for The Hague, he can evince a stickler’s commitment to detail, complete with flourishes and stylised impatience à la Perry Mason – a characteristic that becomes less mannered as he runs out of time in a cross-examination. Then, too, he does good deadpan and good put-upon. When Halit Berisha, an Albanian municipal official from Suva Reka, in the north of Kosovo, testified about the flurry of killings which took place in the town soon after the Nato bombing began, the prosecution produced an annexe of documents for the court to inspect. ‘I fail to understand the purpose of this heap of paper,’ Milosevic pitched in through the interpreter.

The transcript of his cross-examination gives a good idea of the overall technique. On a point in Berisha’s testimony stating that he’d seen the minaret of the Suva Reka mosque blown up, Milosevic put it to him that it was being used by a KLA sniper.

berisha: No.

milosevic: Please. You’ve sworn to tell the truth here.

Later, Berisha recalls seeing Serbian paramilitaries in the bell-tower of the church:

milosevic: I am asking you whether you saw them shoot at anyone.

berisha: Not only once, but many times. I saw it with my own eyes. And to go from one house to another, you had to go in the shadow of the walls.

The reply continues for another minute or so, after which Milosevic remarks: ‘All right, you’ve explained all of this at great length, but you haven’t answered the question. Did you see them kill anyone?’ The judge reminds Milosevic that this was not his original question, but suggests to Berisha that he might want to answer it anyway. Berisha, of course, did not see anyone shot dead. Milosevic tries to show that Berisha’s testimony is unreliable inasmuch as he, Berisha, didn’t see the killings take place. Berisha has to explain that he couldn’t ‘be present’ at the scene of a killing without being killed himself; that he heard of killings from family members and others.

berisha: I didn’t see them because I was on the other side of town. But the people who came to my house, to my yard, they told me that these people were killed . . . on the road of the old town. They told me.

milosevic: All right. All right. Please, could you try to cut this short, because I don’t want to spend so much time on all of this. What are you personally testifying about, Mr Berisha?

A further witness – another Berisha – is called to testify about his own investigations into his family’s mass grave, and eventually also into other graves, in Suva Reka. Milosevic again cross-examines. He points out a number of discrepancies in the evidence, including some mishandled figures about Albanian houses and educational premises destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces. He then concludes:

We have a witness here who is at the same time an amateur investigator. And then, in his capacity as a witness, he explains what he found out as a dilettante investigator. I think that the other side is really being very imaginative when they bring in such witnesses. I don’t know how many roles he is performing right now, during this examination.

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[*] Presented to the African Studies Association, Birmingham, 9-11 September 2002.