The Balkans and the G-Word

Today the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest legal body, rendered an important verdict. After years of legal haggling, the ICJ pronounced that neither Croatia nor Serbia committed genocide against the other in the 1991-95 war that raged between them, de facto.

Specifically, the ICJ ruled that Serbian war crimes committed against Croats in the latter half of 1991 — above all the murder of prisoners and civilians after the fall of Vukovar that November — fell short of the genocide standard, as did the mass expulsion of Serbian civilians in the aftermath of Operation STORM in August 1995. While none can dispute that the eviction of some 200,000 Serbs from the so-called Republic of Serb Krajina was the biggest incident of “ethnic cleansing” in all the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s, it did not rise to the level of genocide, per the ICJ.

This ruling has been hailed by governments in Zagreb and Belgrade alike, amidst cliches about “turning the page.” This is a positive sign in a region that needs one. Certainly it is a welcome decision that ought to allow Croatia and Serbia to focus on pressing issues political and economic, rather than renewing mutual diplomatic spite about the bitter wars of a generation ago.

Many issues remain. This verdict, however welcome, raises troubling questions about the role of UN justice in messy conflicts. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), has covered itself in something less than glory, delivering only modest justice and not much reconciliation in over twenty years of prosecuting war criminals. It seems abundantly clear in hindsight that something more like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation model might be a better fit for nasty ethnic wars like those that tore the Balkans asunder from 1991 to 1999.

As I explained to the UN General Assembly a couple years ago, reconciliation is the real issue now, as impoverished Southeastern Europe, which remains plagued by staggering levels of corruption, crime, and unemployment, desperately needs to set aside past fights and work together to rebuild broken societies and economies. If Zagreb and Belgrade can work together now, thanks to the ICJ taking “genocide” off the table filled with resentments that they awkwardly share, that will be a promising turn of events.

It is surely an encouraging sign that when General Ante Gotovina, the biggest Croatian hero from Operation STORM, was released from the prison cell where the ICTY sent him on trumped-up war crimes charges, he told the throngs of nationalist well-wishers who greeted him home that they needed to get beyond the war and learn to live together, in harmony, with Serbs. If this spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation spreads, Southeastern Europe at last has a chance to move forward.

There are lessons here for Westerners too. Using “genocide” too casually is a serious problem, particularly when advocacy journalists are eager to hear “the g-word,” which guarantees them international airtime. In every ethnic or tribal conflict on earth, no matter how small, all participants know that if they can convince one gullible Western journalist that the killing they are doing and/or suffering amounts to “genocide” then the world will hear about their struggle — from their viewpoint, of course. Western aid and help may well follow, with cash on the side.

This is exactly what happened in Bosnia in the 1990’s, where credulous Western journalists uncritically swallowed claims of genocide and misreported key aspects of that ugly conflict. Death tolls were massively inflated for political effect, while important issues like the role of al-Qa’ida and Iran in Bosnia’s war were ignored as being “off message,” with the end result that Western intervention in Bosnia’s unpleasantness froze a conflict that continues today in the political realm.

Here the impact of “genocide” is especially pernicious. Endorsed by the West, Bosnian Muslims today adhere to a one-sided view of the 1992-95 war that includes only their victimology, often exaggerated for political effect. Why should they compromise with Serbs and Croats, fellow citizens, who after all perpetrated “genocide” against Muslims? How can one parley with such monsters? As a result, Bosnian politics remain permanently broken and the country is a complete politico-economic basket-case that nobody knows how to fix.

Genocide is a deadly serious thing and therefore something that ought never be cheapened by propagandists. By now, any conflict that has a death toll equal to a bad weekend in Chicago or Detroit will have advocates pronouncing that “genocide” is underway, or at least imminent. Journalists and politicians must become wiser about such matters, since the effects of their bad calls can be long-lasting, as Bosnia demonstrates. Let’s hope that the ICJ’s welcome verdict, a vote for political sanity returning, has a cleansing effect whenever claims of genocide are aired casually.