'Bumbling' Karadzic faces political justice

Radovan KaradzicIt took almost 13 years, but Radovan Karadzic has finally been detained. In 1995, the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia slapped an indictment on the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs for crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. Another duly followed. Until now, the former leader of the Bosnian Serb nationalists has proven elusive, often hiding among paramilitaries and sympathisers.

Along with military commander Ratko Mladic, the slightly bumbling Karadzic made a name for himself stirring the heated pot of Serbian nationalism in the wake of Yugoslavia's dissolution. With the declaration of independence by Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, Karadzic, then head of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), struck back at both Bosnian and Croatian forces with effective and brutal results.

His darkest achievements remain his role in the brutal massacre of 10,000 during the 43 month siege of Sarajevo, and some 7500 Bosnian Muslims (or Bosniaks) in the cruelly named safe haven of Srebenica on the watch of Dutch peacekeepers in the summer of 1995.

International war crimes trials, notably of foreign leaders, have their problems. The Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court may have 106 signatories, but it also has vocal critics on all sides of politics. Such a creature can only be as effective as its participating members. International law is, after all, a beast of consensus.

The ledger of opposition against international war crimes trials is impressively weighted. Even such wise heads as George Orwell were against them. Lawyers, he suggested in 1944, should not be in the business of hauling heads-of-state before tribunals for acts of foreign policy and war. Best let them go and suffer the ignominy of public execration. To do otherwise would provide the accused with a ticket to martyrdom.

Those on the Allied side in 1945 would have none of it, and the formula of the international criminal tribunal was born in the rumble of Nuremberg.

Another conventional argument against such state trials is their impact on the society in question. Putting a talismanic figure of a nationalist or ethnic grouping before the law, and one judged by international figures, tends to fuel rather than dampen tensions. An embittered population is an unruly one. This had the potential to derail the ICTY proceedings of such figures as former Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

As time went by, it was clear that the tribunal had had some measure of success. The Serbs, initially cast aside as international pariahs, members of Europe's very own rogue state, were gradually 'normalised'. Though Belgrade's politicians detested the badgering they received from the international community, they relented in giving up their subjects for punishment, most notably Milosevic.

The Serbs were also reminded that their subjects were not the only objects of punishment. A few notorious Croat war criminals have fronted the judges, though the number remains small. Olli Rehn, EU enlargement commissioner, has hinted at quicker Serbian integration into Europe as a result of the capture.

Problems as to how to conduct the trial will be acute. The inconclusive trial of Milosevic was something of an embarrassment. Given the incidents in Bosnia during the Civil War, Karadzic was probably the more appropriate candidate. Milosevic, if anything, tried to restrain the overly dedicated Serb leader.

The Dayton Accords ending the conflict in 1995 were concluded despite Karadzic's near-fanatical opposition. Serbian nationalists could only congregate in and around the curious, slightly decrepit international entity called Republika Srpska, one of Karadzic's proud creations.

Lawyers at the Hague will want to avoid the mistake made with Milosevic — justice delayed is often said to be justice denied. Dying in the dock, as the wily Milosevic did, is not the best recipe for legal propriety. Karadzic is not necessarily going to be any easier and resistance is bound to be robust and plentiful. Though it has been some time since he has practiced psychiatry, his mental agility in questioning will give prosecutors headaches.

The painful episodes of the early 1990s still haunt the landscape of the Balkans. One of the vices of nationalism is the symptom of long memory. Punishing Karadzic will do little to convince those who are already set in their positions. Bosnia's Muslims will feel vindicated; Bosnian Serbs are simply weary.

But even if this trial won't settle the record permanently, or bridge divides, it will discharge the solemn task undertaken at Nuremberg: giving history a record of political justice.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.

Topic tags: binoy kampmark, Radovan Karadzic, bosnian serbs, muslims, Former Yugoslavia, Bosniaks, Sarajevo



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