Slobodan Milosevic was posthumously exonerated on Monday when the international court of justice ruled that Serbia was not responsible for the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica. The former president of Serbia had always argued that neither Yugoslavia nor Serbia had command of the Bosnian Serb army, and this has now been upheld by the world court in The Hague. By implication, Serbia cannot be held responsible for any other war crimes attributed to the Bosnian Serbs.
The allegations against Milosevic over Bosnia and Croatia were cooked up in 2001, two years after an earlier indictment had been issued against him by the separate international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the height of Nato’s attack on Yugoslavia in 1999. Notwithstanding the atrocities on all sides in Kosovo, Nato claims that Serbia was pursuing genocide turned out to be war propaganda, so the ICTY prosecutor decided to bolster a weak case by trying to “get” Milosevic for Bosnia as well. It took two years and 300 witnesses, but the prosecution never managed to produce conclusive evidence against its star defendant, and its central case has now been conclusively blown out of the water.
The international court of justice (ICJ) did condemn Serbia on Monday for failing to act to prevent Srebrenica, on the basis that Belgrade failed to use its influence over the Bosnian Serb army. But this is small beer compared to the original allegations. Serbia‘s innocence of the central charge is reflected in the court’s ruling that Serbia should not pay Bosnia any reparations – supplying an armed force is not the same as controlling it. Yugoslavia had no troops in Bosnia and greater guilt over the killings surely lies with those countries that did, notably the Dutch battalion in Srebrenica itself. Moreover, during the Bosnian war, senior western figures famously fraternised with the Bosnian Serb leaders now indicted for genocide, including the US general Wesley Clark and our own John Reid. Should they also be condemned for failing to use their influence?
However, Monday’s ruling is about far more than Milosevic. 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.
The ICJ, indeed, operates on a radically different philosophy of international relations than that which inspires the ICTY. Unlike the ICTY, the ICJ is not a criminal court and claims no power of constraint over states. Its jurisprudence is based on the anti-war sovereignty-based philosophy of the Nuremberg trial and the UN charter. In the international system, born out of the second world war, war is illegal except in a very restricted cases. States have no right to attack other states, not even on human rights abuse claims. This position is based on the understanding that there are no war crimes without war, and that war always makes things worse.
Mere anarchy was loosed upon the world when the cold war ended and the US sought to create a unipolar world system by destroying the old one. After the 1991 Iraq war, the US and Britain claimed the right to bomb Iraq to protect the Kurds and Shias, which they did for 12 years. Nato bombed the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and Yugoslavia in 1999. The ICTY, created in 1993, operates on the basis of this doctrine of interventionism, which has come to its ghastly conclusion in the bloodbaths of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Created and controlled by the Great Powers, the ICTY, like its sister courts for Rwanda and the new international criminal court, corrupts the judicial process for political ends, the most important of which is to support the US’s supposed right to act as the world’s policeman. The new ICC, created by Britain, also seems to operate on the basis that white men do not commit war crimes: its prosecutors are currently investigating two local wars in Africa while turning a blind eye to Iraq. Only when that hideous strength which flows from the hypocrisy of interventionism is sapped, will the world stand any chance of returning to lawfulness and peace.
John Laughland is the author of Travesty: the Trial of Slobodan Milosevic and the Corruption of International Justice [email protected]