Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Karadžić Sentenced to 40 Years in Prison, Reconciliation Still Far Away

Adelina Marini, March 26, 2016

Finally! 21 years after the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina one of those most responsible for it – the former leader of Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadžić – was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to a total of 40 years in prison. The verdict is of the first instance and will be appealed. It is for genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war. Karadžić is convicted for his role as president of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina and supreme commander of the Serbian forces during the conflict in the country between 1992 and 1995. The genocide indictments were two – for seven municipalities in BiH and for Srebrenica. He was acquitted for the first one, but convicted for the second.  

The chamber, presided by the South Korean Judge O-Gon Kwon, had no doubt about Radovan Karadžić's guilt and in his individual responsibility as a leader, who, even if he did not plan all the crimes himself, could have prevent them. He was at the forefront of the development of an ideology and policy for the creation of ethnically homogeneous Bosnian Serb state. He is responsible for the propaganda, which promoted violence, hate, and created an atmosphere of impunity for the crimes, committed against the non-Serbian population, announced the Chairman of the chamber. After the taking over of Srebrenica by the army of Republika Srpska in July 1995, as ordered by Mr Karadžić, almost 30 thousand Bosnian Muslim women, children, and elderly men were forcibly banished from the enclave. The chamber is convinced that Karadžić had the intention and had planned the deportation of the entire Muslim population from Srebrenica forever. 

The chamber found Karadžić also guilty of the murder of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men, boys, and youngsters after the fall of Srebrenica. He is also guilty of the siege of Sarajevo, where civilians and civil targets were shot at with the intention of instilling fear and terror. Karadžić has been in the Tribunal’s arrest since 21 July 2008. The process against him began on 26 October 2009 and lasted 498 days, during which 586 witnesses were called and were accepted a total of 11 500 pages of evidence. 

A belated and small verdict

The initial reactions of joy that justice has finally been served and that one of the biggest culprits for the war has been convicted quickly gave way to disappointment. Why is it not a life sentence, regardless of the fact that the 70-year old Karadžić will hardly live to its end? According to some of his victims, there is a large risk that he will be released much earlier due to health reasons or for good behaviour. Others said they were convicted by him to be without their relatives and loved ones for life. Thousands of women, who have lost their husbands, fathers, brothers, or sons are convicted to a lifetime loneliness, and Karadžić is convicted to just 40 years, resented the mothers of Srebrenica. 

Others criticised the court for the fact that it took too long to bring justice. A late verdict, they said, adding to the already thick file of criticisms against the work of the Tribunal. On the other hand, however, the verdict came in a very important moment for the region and Europe in general, reminding what do nationalism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, hate speech, and propaganda lead to. These are all things that look to be blossoming in the former Yugoslavia region two decades after the end of a terrible war. They are also rising in other parts of Europe, which boasted until recently that it had succeeded in burying these devastating feelings forever with the creation of the European Union, for which it was also awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2012. 

According to other reactions, however, it is never too late for retribution. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia wrote on Twitter that there is no time limit on the prosecution, investigation, and trials for war crimes, for they are crucial for reconciliation. Croatian Foreign Minister Miro Kovač is of a different opinion. He believes that the verdict hardly provides moral satisfaction to the descendants of the victims. “Radovan Karadžić has indeed been convicted, but there is still no victory over his spirit and the heritage of his criminal and genocidal policies. Only after this is achieved there could be reconciliation between the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina and beyond”, says the official statement of the Croatian foreign ministry. 

The EU is civilizationally losing Serbia

The reading of the verdict against Karadžić, which is yet to be appealed, coincided with the noting of the 17th anniversary of the NATO bombings over Serbia because of the actions of Slobodan Milošević’s regime in Kosovo. The former minister of information in Mr Milošević’s government and current prime minister of Serbia – Aleksandar Vučić – sent out a clear threat regarding the verdict during the official ceremony of commemoration of the anniversary. “I warn those, who consider using today’s verdict against the former President of Republika Srpska for political or any other attacks against Republika Srpska, that Serbia cannot and will not allow this, in compliance with the Dayton agreement”, he said and added: ”we threaten nobody, but we will not allow anyone to maul Serbs just because they are Serbs”. Later, he added that he would adhere to the Dayton peace agreement and the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also the integrity of Republika Srpska. It did not become clear if there is any real danger to their integrity. 

Regarding the verdict, Vučić called an emergency government meeting. The president of Republika Srpska within Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, called it unfair. To many in Republika Srpska Radovan Karadžić is a hero. In the days before the reading of the verdict an official memorial plaque in his honour was installed. On the same subject the Serbian tabloid Informer, considered close to PM Vučić, came out with a provocative advertisement on the day after – the weekend issue is offered with a free poster of Radovan Karadžić, adorned with the slogan “Serbia remembers”. As a “bonus” the issue will also print verses by Gavrilo Princip – the Bosnian Serb, who at the day of st. Vitus (June 28) of 1914 assassinated  the Austro-Hungarian heir apparent Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. An assassination that started the First World War. 

Slobodan Milošević did not see the end of the process against him, because he died in the Tribunal’s arrest. His legacy however continues to live in Serbia and Republika Srpska. The lack of conviction for the crimes, committed by the Milošević regime continue to serve as an obstacle to reconciliation in the region of former Yugoslavia and are often the cause for creating tension. 

This week First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia Ivica Dačić stated that if President Vladimir Putin was leading Russia at the time of the NATO bombings, they would have never happened. He also showed a considerable change in the current rhetoric towards the EU by stating that Serbia wants to be a member of the EU, but not if the price to pay is introducing sanctions against Russia. “How could that be?! This will never happen!”, he said. This position differs remarkably from the views of Prime Minister Vučić, according to whom Serbia will introduce sanctions against Russia, possibly by 2018. President Nikolić in turn has been warning repeatedly that Serbia will not become EU member if the price to pay is the recognition of Kosovo. Vučić is the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and President Tomislav Nikolić got elected on their list. Dačić is leader of the socialists. All three of them, however, were close to another defendant at the Hague Tribunal – Vojislav Šešelj. 

Šešelj’s verdict will be read on March 31st, with the Tribunal letting this be done in his absence for the first time in history, due to Serbian authorities refusing to bring him back to the Hague. They refuse to give over three more defendants, which was the cause of heavy polemics between Belgrade and the Hague. Prime Minister Vučić often uses Germany and France as examples, whose reconciliation after the Second World War laid the foundations of the European Union. The current rhetoric in Serbia, Republika Srpska, but also Croatia show that on the territory of former Yugoslavia this example of reconciliation has been impossible to implement for 20 years now, irrespective of the international community’s efforts. At the same time, however, Aleksandar Vučić admits that the EU has lost its magnetic attractiveness. 

Last year, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (Norway) visited Serbia for the first time since the bombings and apologised to the people of Serbia for the civilian casualties. On Thursday, on the anniversary, the same was done by American Vice-President Joe Biden, who telephoned Serbian PM Vučić specially for the occasion. Stoltenberg said in Belgrade last autumn that the purpose of the bombings was to stop the “unacceptable actions of the Milošević government”.  In reply, the Serbian PM stated that neither Serbia nor its leadership at the time were responsible for what happened in 1999. 

A big test to the international community will be exactly the reading of the verdict on the Vojislav Šešelj case and how will Serbian authorities face it. At the moment, Serbia is in the middle of an election campaign for the preliminary elections on April 24, but it is highly unlikely that Vučić will lose, which means that the rhetoric and policy will remain. Croatia has already announced that it is blocking the opening of Chapter 23 “Judiciary and fundamental rights” in the EU’s negotiations with Serbia exactly because of Vojislav Šešelj. This sparked sharp reactions in Serbia with a main thesis that Zagreb should first deal with the outbursts of Fascism in Croatia itself, where over the last year cases on Nazi excesses became more frequent, many of which remained uncondemned at the highest political level.

All of this shows that the verdicts and the work in general of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia will rather deepen the division instead of bringing justice and reconciliation, and it is possible that they will even take countries in the region back to square one. At the background of all this the lack of a reaction by the EU is deafening. And that in the very same week when the capital of the EU – Brussels - was hit. European silence is even more threatening at the background of Serbia being a key state in the Union’s enlargement process, where the most problematic states are left. Bosnia and Herzegovina is also there, whose future depends highly on Serbia’s conduct, but also on Croatia. In an interview for CNN’s regional subsidiary – N1 television – former PM and foreign minister of BiH Zlatko Lagumdžija stated that the current situation in BiH is abnormal and could no longer continue this way.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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