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Western Promises | The Nation

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Western Promises

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If you saw the grainy footage of Saddam Hussein being brutally hanged on December 30, 2006, amid the taunts of his political enemies, "international justice" is probably not the first thought that came to mind. "Tribal vendetta" is a more likely guess. More than sixty years ago, the need to avoid vendettas was one of the factors behind the establishment of an international military tribunal at Nuremberg to judge Nazis accused of war crimes. The Nuremberg tribunal has since served as a model of sorts for the handful of international tribunals created by the United Nations in the past two decades to judge people accused of committing war crimes in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In July 2002 the International Criminal Court, a permanent tribunal responsible for trying cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, opened its doors.

About the Author

Marc Perelman
Marc Perelman is a Paris-based journalist for the TV station France 24 and was previously the diplomatic correspondent...

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A few months earlier, Slobodan Milosevic had appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague on the charge of genocide, becoming the only former head of state to be tried for crimes against humanity by such a tribunal. He accused the court of being a tool of realpolitik wielded by major Western powers; Western officials have routinely dismissed such allegations as conspiracy theories. They will have a much harder time making that argument with Florence Hartmann, a former official at the ICTY, who in Paix et châtiment: Les guerres secrètes de la politique et de la justice internationales (Peace and Punishment: The Secret Wars of Politics and International Justice), published in September in France, describes how the ICTY has been hampered not only by the predictable obstruction of Balkan governments but also by the meddling hands of its main sponsors--France, Britain and the United States. Hartmann openly accuses them of sabotaging the court's work by infiltrating its personnel, withholding key evidence and failing to arrest two of its main indictees--Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic--for more than a decade.

Hartmann argues that France, Britain and the United States have obstructed the court in order to avert the public disclosure, during the course of a trial, of their failure to prevent the violent implosion of Yugoslavia and, more egregious, despite ominous warning signs, the July 1995 Serbian-led massacre of an estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica. Hartmann's claim is not new, but her evidence is. As such, the book raises serious questions about whether Western leaders--including members of the Clinton Administration, who justified US intervention in the Bosnian war on humanitarian grounds (a justification invoked, in turn, by politicians and journalists of various political stripes who backed the invasion of Iraq)--failed in their legal duty to prevent crimes against humanity. Hartmann's allegations of obstruction and sabotage are based on the UN-sponsored 1948 Convention on Genocide, which obliges all signatories (of which the United States is one) to do their utmost to prevent such crimes from occurring. A few months after Srebrenica, Karadzic, the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, were indicted by the ICTY on charges of genocide for their role in the massacre. Milosevic was indicted on similar charges in 1999, and the ICTY formally declared Srebrenica a genocide in a 2001 ruling.

Hartmann is a former reporter for Le Monde, France's newspaper of record, and the author of a noted biography of Milosevic. She worked from 2000 to 2006 as a spokesperson for Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the ICTY. Paix et châtiment provides a vivid insider's account of realpolitik at the ICTY based on notes and documents Hartmann accumulated during her stint in Del Ponte's office, where she also served as her adviser on the Balkans. The book has received broad and positive coverage in France, and it kicked off a storm in the Balkans even before translations appeared in bookstores there in early November, with local politicians using it to attack the ICTY's legitimacy. When Hartmann and I talked in Paris in October, she told me she had not consulted with her former boss about her book. (For her part, Del Ponte said through her spokesperson Olga Kavran that she found the book "interesting.") Hartmann's salvo is certainly a preview of the memoir Del Ponte has already announced she will write after her eight-year tenure ends on December 31. To write her book, Hartmann flouted the tribunal's confidentiality rules, which forbid current and former employees from disclosing information ruled confidential by the court or its chief prosecutor. She risks being cited for contempt of court and, if found guilty, imprisoned for up to seven years for breaching those rules.

Hartmann decided to take such a daring step because she fervently believes that the newest incarnation of the principle of international justice, the International Criminal Court, needs to draw lessons from the ICTY and other UN international courts to fulfill its promise. "The will to reaffirm the rule of law and to castigate criminals that has expressed itself for the last decade through the multiplication of judicial organs has not managed to chase away old habits" whereby governments privilege their national interests over international justice, she writes.

The war that broke out in Yugoslavia in 1991 pitted the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, dominated by the former Communist turned Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic, against independence movements in several of the federation's regions--Bosnia, Slovenia and Croatia. Milosevic sought to assert Serbian control over those territories by offering political and military support to their Serb minorities. In 1992, after a brief conflict with Slovenia in July of the previous year, and as fighting in Croatia was raging, multiethnic Bosnia became the main theater of Milosevic's pan-Serbian ambitions, and its Muslim population became the main target of Serbian firepower. After three years of ineffectual UN and NATO intervention to stop the bloodshed orchestrated by Milosevic and his henchmen Karadzic and Mladic, and following the fall of Srebrenica, the international community mustered a more robust military response. It also launched a US-led diplomatic effort that culminated in the negotiation of a peace deal in November 1995 in Dayton, Ohio. The Dayton Accords created two similarly sized autonomous entities in Bosnia--a Muslim-Croat federation and a Bosnian Serb republic--under close international supervision. A shaky peace has held for the past decade (events in Kosovo notwithstanding), but it has come at the expense of the new justice standards that the international community had championed in the face of the atrocities committed in the region.

When the UN Security Council established the ICTY on May 25, 1993, it marked the first time an international court was granted such wide-ranging powers: concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia since 1991; a powerful chief prosecutor; and the obligation of all UN member states to collaborate with the tribunal. The reason for this sweeping mandate was simple and cynical: the court was never supposed to be used. It was a prop meant to quell the public outcry prompted by reports in August 1992 by Newsday's Roy Gutman and the Guardian's Ed Vulliamy of starving Bosnian Muslim and Croat prisoners being held in the Serb-run detention camps of Omarska and Trnopolje in northern Bosnia. The ICTY was "widely viewed as little more than a public relations device," as Richard Holbrooke, who would become the chief US diplomat in the region in 1995 and lead the effort to reach the Dayton Accords, put it in his 1998 memoir To End a War. But the prop became the stage of real political drama for the ICTY's main sponsors once the court became an obstacle to the Dayton negotiations. Milosevic, one of the ICTY's prime targets, was also "the key to the peace, the one who would sign the Dayton accords in November 1995, putting an end to three and a half years of war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina," Hartmann writes. As a result, the evidence of his role in coordinating the war crimes in Bosnia, primarily the infamous massacre in Srebrenica, had to be kept from the public, Hartmann says.

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