Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
The chief United Nations envoy for the former Yugoslavia during the Bosnian war testified this week at the Hague tribunal about his numerous meetings with wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.
Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi was appointed special representative of the UN Secretary General in January 1994, nearly two years after the war broke out, and remained in that post for most of 1995.
He was called to testify as a defence witness in Karadzic’s case.
“I think our first meetings… were very useful to me to get to know your concerns, as well as your assessment of the situation and difficulties in which your side was faced with,” Akashi told Karadzic during the direct examination. “I appreciated the discussions which took place, while obviously I was not in full agreement with everything which was said by Your Excellency as well as by your colleagues on Bosnian Serb side.”
The accused, who represents himself in the courtroom, asked Akashi about a book he wrote about his experiences in the Balkans entitled “In the Valley Between War and Peace”.
“I will not call it a book; it’s a booklet. It’s a modest exercise on my part,” 82-year-old Akashi said in the soft, measured tone that characterised his entire testimony.
The accused seemed bemused by this explanation, but went on to say that Akashi had described the atmosphere of their meetings in the publication, including the fact that he, Karadzic, possessed a “humorous touch”.
“You remember that I cited Robert Frost, you said that I was formidable adversary in negotiations, and a tough debater. But it is true that you never left [Bosnian Serb headquarters in] Pale with empty hands?” Karadzic asked.
“I’m not sure we can make the general statement that I always was able to achieve what I wanted. I had your cooperation and understanding, but… I think you recall more difficult meetings we had subsequently,” Akashi said. “In this booklet, I also mention that we shifted from more informal discussions in a rather good working environment to larger conference room, and you shifted [from English] to the Serbian language and resorted to interpreters, and this made our interchanges more formal and confrontational. I think it was at your insistence.”
Prosecutors allege that Karadzic, the president of Bosnia's self-declared Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1996, is responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which "contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory".
He is accused of planning and overseeing the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead, as well as the massacre of more than 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995. Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run.
The accused asked Akashi about a mortar attack on Sarajevo’s Markale Market on February 5, 1994, that killed some 60 people and injured more than a 100. It was the first of two attacks on the same market; the second occurred in August 1995.
In the trial of Bosnian Serb General Stanislav Galic, a majority of tribunal judges determined that the 1994 attack originated from Bosnian Serb positions.
Karadzic has repeatedly denied this, and at various points during his trial he has claimed that the attack was staged by the opposing Bosnian government side, and that the bodies found there were “dummies and old corpses” (For more on this issue, see Karadzic's Markale Fraud Claim Disputed.)
Akashi said that “there was much speculation in the media about the perpetrators of the horrible tragedy” at the Markale market, and that such speculation also took place within the UN peacekeeping force.
As UN envoy, Akashi established an expert committee consisting of five ballistic experts – two of them from countries friendly towards the Bosnian government and two from states friendly towards the Bosnian Serbs. The chairman of the committee was from Canada and was thus considered neutral.
Akashi said the mortar bomb “hit some structure” before it landed on the ground in the market. and this “made it very difficult for experts to judge precisely where the mortar came from”.
As a result, the committee concluded that “the shot could have come either from the Bosnian Serb side or from the Bosnian government side in that whole area of probable attack”.
“The conclusion, which I accepted fully, was that the attack could have come from either side,” Akashi said.
During the prosecution’s cross examination, lawyer Carolyn Edgerton asked Akashi whether his answers regarding the 1994 Markale attack were “from a distance of about 18 years” since he had not had an opportunity to review the expert report prior to giving testimony.
“Yes, you are right,” Akashi said.
“Can I also take it you have no knowledge of local or other investigations [conducted after the attack]?” Edgerton asked.
Akashi confirmed that he did not have such knowledge, and that he had only heard a lot of “speculation”.
Edgerton went on to ask Akashi about assertions made in his booklet, particularly that “Karadzic as a negotiator had a tendency to twist the truth rather nonchalantly”.
She cited two examples from Gorazde in April 1994, when Bosnian Serb forces launched an offensive on the enclave, which was supposed to be a UN “safe area”.
“You said at the time that Karadzic insisted he did not receive a fax from you concerning UN officers taken hostage by his forces, and while many still remained hostage, he insisted they had all been released and you easily found out that wasn’t the case,” Edgerton said.
She also pointed to an example when Karadzic said he had withdrawn his forces from a certain area, but this turned out to be untrue.
Akashi confirmed these events, adding that his staff had urged him to abandon negotiations with Karadzic because of “this clear discrepancy between what was told to us and what we had subsequently confirmed from the ground”.
“I said no, I like to be courteous and it would be very impolite to withdraw from a meeting, so I stayed on in the meantime, hoping that more UN hostages might be released. I always wanted to give a benefit of the doubt,” the witness said.
Edgerton then presented a letter that Akashi wrote to Karadzic on September 20, 1994, expressing “utter dismay” that some 2,500 Bosnian Muslims had been “forcefully expelled” from the Bijeljina area in the few days prior to that.
“You recalled to Dr Karadzic assurances he gave you on 20 August that such forceful expulsions of the non-Serb population are not in accordance with the policies of Bosnian Serb authorities,” Edgerton said.
The same letter also mentioned a phone conversation between the two men in which Karadzic said he had taken measures to prosecute those responsible.
“You conclude by telling Dr Karadzic how you fail to understand how the situation can accelerate despite these assurances. Would you like to comment?” Edgerton asked.
“I think this letter requires no additional explanation. This was product of my utter dismay… and I had no other alternative to writing this letter. I was accused of being overly polite to Dr Karadzic, and a well-known representative of a certain big power got a hold of a copy of one of those letters which I sent to Dr Karadzic and accused me of unduly polite and courteous,” Akashi said. “But I tried to do my best to maintain a trustful relationship with all my negotiating partners.”
The prosecutor asked, “Is it at all feasible that movements of the [non Serb population] over such a protracted period could take place without [Karadzic’s] government knowledge and acquiescence?”
“I think it’s most unlikely,” Akashi replied.
Proceedings will resume on May 7 with a continuation of testimony from General Galic, who began giving evidence in the Karadzic trial last week.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.
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