Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosniaks Say Tribunal Playing Politics

Bosnian Muslims, once sympathetic to the Hague court, are changing their view

When they speak about the war crimes tribunal, some members of Bosnia’s Muslim, or Bosniak, population are beginning to sound strangely like Serbs or Croats.

Bosniaks have always been the most favourably disposed of Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups to the tribunal. However, with Srebrenica commander Naser Oric set to begin trial for launching raids against Serb villages while key Serb suspects of the 1995 genocide against Srebrenica’s Bosniak population remain at large, some of the Hague’s long-time allies are now charging the tribunal with playing politics.

“It would have been better to close down the court last year,” said Amor Masovic, chairman of Bosnia’s Federal Commission on Missing Persons, who said he has acted as a tribunal witness four times and his investigation of mass graves has benefited from information provided by tribunal staff.

“I think the tribunal is changing its attitude. At the beginning, the prosecutor and judges were independent. As time goes by, politics are having a stronger influence on the tribunal…The tribunal is further away from what we call justice. Every day, it’s less and less objective.”

Masovic has never minced his words when it comes to pointing out what he sees as the war crimes court’s deficiencies, however the strength of his criticism, and that of other Bosniaks, is unusual. For years, it has been Serbs and sometimes Croats who complained of political bias and double-standards. In a 1999 Tufts University study, leaders of non-governmental organisations in Republika Srpska expressed predominantly negative attitudes toward the tribunal, while most Federation NGO leaders had a favourable view of the court.

A study of Bosnian judges and prosecutors conducted the same year by University of California at Berkeley Human Rights Center researchers found that most Serbs and Croats thought the tribunal was “biased and thus incapable of providing fair trials”. Legal experts interviewed in Sarajevo, primarily Bosniaks, had the opposite opinion, “No one described the work of the [tribunal] - including the selection of the indictees - as ‘political’.”

That has now changed. Dr Ilijaz Pilav worked as a physician in Srebrenica during the war and was taken aback by Oric’s arrest. “I was completely disappointed,” he said.

Still, Pilav said that he maintained his trust in the tribunal until a number of high-ranking Serb officials involved in the Srebrenica massacre struck plea bargains. Pilav viewed their admissions of guilt as insincere and aimed at avoiding punishment. “[Tribunal officials] have some kind of explanation about this, but I think for our people it’s a very bad signal, and I think it minimizes the authority of the tribunal. Now I’m afraid we cannot trust in the institution like before, since it started to be more of a political institution than an institution for legal aid, for justice.”

If Oric’s detention was, as some charge, “political”, meant to convince Serbs of the tribunal’s even-handedness, it does not appear to have changed the impression of Serbs that the tribunal is biased against them.

Indeed, recent polls in Serbia show that anti-tribunal sentiment is running as high as it was under the Milosevic government. Choosing to incense long-time supporters of war crimes trials while failing to placate opponents would appear, quite clearly, an impolitic move.

When Oric was arrested “people were happy”, said Dr. Boro Lazic, a Bosnian Serb physician from eastern Bosnia who now lives in Serbia. However, Lazic said, Oric was far from the only Bosnian officer suspected of killing Serbs. “Most people here and in the Republica Srpska hate the tribunal because they think that it’s not OK that only 10 per cent [of indictees are non-Serbs] and 90 per cent are Serbs.”

In actuality, about 70 per cent -not 90 per cent - of those indicted have been Serbs. Several years after the tribunal instituted an outreach programme, misperceptions about the court and confusion over its workings remain prevalent. The problem can be traced back to the early years of the tribunal’s existence.

“The international community did not work early on in the process to make sure that people would have access to seeing the tribunal process and understanding how it worked,” said Eric Stover, director of the University of California at Berkeley Human Rights Center and co-author of the forthcoming book “My neighbor, my enemy: justice and community after mass atrocity”.

The Bosniak liaison officer at the tribunal, Amir Ahmic, struggles to explain the full meaning of legal concepts such as plea bargains to his fellow Bosnians. When Biljana Plavsic pleaded guilty and received a seven-year sentence, many Bosniaks, he said, were deeply disappointed at the length of the prison term. “My reaction was the same,” Ahmic said. “But it’s not a black and white picture if you look at [this in the context of] the future.”

He said that when Nazis pleaded guilty at post-war trials and received lower sentences, it caused an initial uproar, but later the next generation “was very happy that some of the Nazis said, ‘I’m guilty’. This is good for the future.”

Bosniak political leaders also stress the tribunal’s importance for the next generation. “Establishing what happened in the past is good for the future,” said Tuzla mayor Jasmin Imamovic. “Everyone has his own story and version of the past. The tribunal should make one true version.”

The long-term effects of war crimes proceedings are difficult to measure. Surveys have shown that Bosnia’s Muslim, Croat and Serb populations generally agree on the importance of punishing and removing war criminals from society and establishing individual responsibility for crimes.

The relationship of war crimes prosecutions to reconciliation is more debatable, particularly when judicial decisions run counter to individuals’ preconceptions of what happened. The prosecution-reconciliation link has come under attack in recent articles, including one published in the current issue of the journal International Security.

“The general problem is that there’s no way of measuring the impact of major human rights strategies,” said Lola Vollen, director of the DNA Identification, Technology and Human Rights center in California. “[The tribunal] reflects back onto these people that the world has in some way witnessed what they’ve experienced; it’s an appreciation of what they’ve gone through. That might be one of its primary benefits.”

Regardless of recent events, the official Bosnian government position toward the tribunal, according to Ahmic and others, has not changed. “We think that the [tribunal] is the most important international institution, not only for Bosniak people, but for all of Bosnia,” Ahmic said. Bosnian United Nations ambassador Mirza Kusljugic agreed, “Officially all the statements are the same as they were. The government of Bosnia and Herzegovina is ready to cooperate and do whatever is necessary to enable a fair trial for those who are indicted.”

The next months may bring an even greater outpouring of negative public opinion toward the Hague court in Bosnia. The Oric trial is scheduled to begin in June, and there will be trouble when the Office of the Prosecutor releases a large number of final indictments, expected before the end of 2004. “There will be people who were in high positions,” said Kusljugic. “Naser Oric is sensitive, but the numbers [Del Ponte] announced are something like 30 new indictees, that’s a big number.”

Still, the ambassador is confident that official relations between the tribunal and the Bosnian government will remain intact. “Regardless of what will happen,” Kusljugic said, “the position of the government will be the same.”

Sheri Fink is the author of “War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival” about how doctors in Srebrenica coped during the war in Bosnia.

More IWPR's Global Voices