Bosnia after the ICTY

I write as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is getting underway with its decision on the charges of genocide against Ratko Mladić (and just now sentenced to life imprisonment). The decision can be followed in many places, among them the live blog being run by Balkan Insight, whose coverage of the issues raised in and by the war has been sharp and whose pre-verdict summary of Mladić’s actions is well worth a read for background. (As, indeed, is its work in uncovering the interest in the countries of the region of the fascist right.)

Whatever his level of guilt in terms of the charges, Mladić has used the trial as a platform from which to justify his actions as ‘defender of the Serbs’, a narrative shaped by nationalist sentiment and long-rooted victim culture. In particular, his defence has been based on the ‘Islamic Declaration‘ of Alija Izetbegović, President of Bosnia before and during the war (and also a nationalist, imprisoned as such for activities during the 1980s), essentially as a plan to subject Serbs living in Bosnia to Muslim domination. This argument was, by the way, given short shrift in Allan Little and Laura Silber’s ‘Death of Yugoslavia’, where it is described as a ‘work of scholarship, not politics, intended to promote philosophical discourse among Muslims’ (p. 208, 1996 edition). We might also see its re-publication as part of the balance of fear between the different nationalisms during the descent into war, as well as self-assertion against plans to dismember and cantonise Bosnia, determined a few months later at Karađorđevo by Milošević and Tuđman but around which nationalist fires were already being stoked.

Mladić is responsible for his actions and needs to face justice (his pathetic attempts thus far this morning to disrupt the verdict are symbolic of fear and a refusal to own up to his actions – products, too, in their own way of nationalism).

But what of Bosnia and Herzegovina subsequently? The ICTY is due to pack up its work (this month), after 24 years, and hand over responsibility for the remaining cases, and appeals, to the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, the UN body to handle the tribunals both for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia at the completion of their mandates had finished. As has been pointed out, the ICTY has never been able to overcome domestic hostility to trying war criminals who are held, as Mladić is, as heroes; and neither has it been able to reach out victims to allow them to forget the past – disclaimer: I am Associate Editor of the journal linked here). Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina knows no peace: political leaders in Republika Srpska regularly hold out the prospects of an independence referendum; a lack of trust and dislocation disrupts the work of the country’s institutions, denying progress; and lack of economic growth leads to unemployment and poverty, an environment which breeds brooding and blaming.

It may be that a post-apartheid style Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have helped heal the tragic wounds of war, cleansing and dislocation of communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At this distance, clearly we’ll never know, although the internationally-driven legitimising of separate entities under the Dayton Accords would not have helped; equally, the extent of community division may have prevented such a Commission from functioning effectively. The ways in which the war has been progressed since 1996, in a time of so-called peace and in a thousand examples of hatred, are not encouraging that such a thing would have been successful. More than twenty years after the war – compare relations between Germany and France in 1965; or compare the reactions of Germans cleansed from territories lost as a result of the re-drawing of the borders of post-war Poland – Bosnia remains divided and the time for such a Commission is long gone. Nevertheless, the nationalisms with which it should have been tasked and with which it might have dealt remain extant, brooding and disruptive. They still need to be tackled, as does the unemployment, poverty and (social) exclusion which allow them to rumble and fester. The ways in which nationalisms drive deep-rooted hatreds and division between peoples means that, as with the price of peace, the only defence against nationalisms continues to be eternal vigilance.

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