VIEWPOINT: Ideologies on Trial

It's time for courts to try the ideologies that drive people to commit war crimes and acts of terrorism.

VIEWPOINT: Ideologies on Trial

It's time for courts to try the ideologies that drive people to commit war crimes and acts of terrorism.

While reflecting on September 11, a Zagreb newspaper recalled a hijacking back in 1976, when a Croatian nationalist in exile, Zvonko Busic, along with his American wife, Julienne, and several other conspirators, seized a passenger plane over the Atlantic.


As he explained during the trial in the USA, his intention was to promote Croatian nationalism by demanding the release of certain political prisoners held by the Yugoslav communist regime.


Luckily, the hijackers had a change of mind and abandoned their operation. Busic and the others were charged with air piracy and sentenced to a range of prison terms. Upon Croatian independence a decade and a half later, Busic's wife was employed by the Croatian embassy in the US to handle cultural affairs.


Croatian nationalists have been tireless ever since in insisting that Zvonko Busic was not a terrorist.


More recently, the Croat government has said it sincerely wants to be part of the international anti-terrorist coalition, yet it has failed to deliver a very important indicted war criminal, General Ante Gotovina, to The Hague.


The new Belgrade authorities also want to join the coalition despite the fact that they have yet to extradite many a commander of nationalist terror, in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, wanted by the international court.


What all this shows is that there is no universal view of what constitutes terrorism. What for some is legitimate violence is to others an unconscionable act of barbarity. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the debate over the possible prosecution of Osama bin Laden.


The West sees him as a terrorist leader while many in the Islamic world regard him as an heroic figure fighting for the rights of oppressed Muslims.


And the latter are likely to continue seeing him in such a light unless the court that eventually tries him - whether it be an international criminal court or some ad hoc tribunal - also makes a judgement on the radical religious fundamentalism that lies behind his actions.


The Hague tribunal's failure to pronounce judgement on extreme nationalism, the motive for many of the crimes it is prosecuting, means that this ideology will continue to haunt the region and, who knows, spawn future war criminals.


Trying the causes of crimes is not a new concept. After the Second World War, the Allies addressed the motive behind the atrocities committed during the conflict.


The Nuremberg tribunal judged individual guilt and condemned fascism in generals terms, while the Allies conducted a programme of de-Nazification in post-war Germany, to the benefit of Germans and the rest of the world.


At Nuremberg, the winners were undisputed. In the Balkans, the resolution of the many crises has been far less clear.


So, at The Hague tribunal, few dare even mention extreme nationalism as the primary cause of the wars in the Balkans. Indeed, nationalism as a way of life and of governance, incompatible with democracy, has been the real winner.


For the moment, there is no danger of war breaking out again. But the international community has consistently accommodated nationalism - most notably in the Dayton Peace Accord in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also in other local agreements and decisions. Nationalism remains the dominant political force in the region.


This is the reason the pace of arrests, although picking up, has been so slow - many of those indicted for war crimes have been protected by the nationalist authorities in the region.


The nationalist executioners are treated as heroes, and their ideologists, still in place, write them into the history books. Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the paramount Bosnian Serb war leaders, remain at large, and corrupt nationalism is still at work.


There are few signs of the remorse and shame that could be expected from a civilised nation after so many horrendous crimes have been committed in its name.


Wouldn't the same happen with Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network if they were judged before an international tribunal? (Needless to say, rightly or wrongly, an American court would be widely dismissed in the Islamic world as prejudiced.)


Indeed, there are many similarities between extreme ethnic nationalism and radical religious fundamentalism:


Both assert themselves as a reaction to modern phenomena and globalisation, a "return to basics". Both are non-rational - based on the ethnos or the spirit - and maximalist, rejecting any form of negotiations or agreements. Both appear to be immune to any external moderating influences, even international law. Both are capable of extreme violence and crimes against humanity. And both appear to have somehow met in Bosnia.


Many commentators have warned that whatever the fate of bin Laden - whether he's killed or survives to wreck further mayhem on the West - his popularity among the dispossessed (and not always well-informed) Muslim population around the world stands only to spiral.


Yet the international community still has no clear response to such a menace. War has been declared against a diffuse network of individuals, but the true identity of the adversary - extremist fundamentalism - is dealt with rather diplomatically. (Just as in the Balkans there has been a hesitancy over taking on nationalism.)


Of course, a larger racial confrontation and civilisational clash should be avoided at all cost. But that doesn't mean that the contours of the conflict should not be properly identified.


Nations afflicted by nationalism, and religions poisoned by rogue fundamentalism, should try to rid themselves of their cancers. These efforts should be helped by the international community. Making clear judgements on the causes of terrorism and war crimes, would be an important first step.


Miroslav Jancic is a Sarajevan writer living in London.


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