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

Viewpoint: A Lesson From the Balkans

Using the Balkan experience as a guide, the United States could best honour its victims by committing itself to an international criminal court.
By Anthony Borden

The carnage is experienced by relatively few. But filmed live and rebroadcast ad nauseum, it takes on a slow-motion drama, familiar world-wide - the dead, the terrified survivors, the pools of blood, the cry, "Can anyone help?"

Normal life is put on hold. For some, a frantic period of searching begins, working any telephone number that comes to mind, trying to account for family and friends. And there is a personal accounting: from this day, how deeply is my own life now scarred, and how will I respond?

The scenes from last week make the head and heart of any New Yorker ache. But they also remind me of a day in 1994, when the shoe was on another foot, and I watched a Sarajevan colleague struggle to come to terms with the infamous Markale bread-queue massacre. He, like me, lost no one. But for both of us, a family member could so easily have been there.

Only now, so many years after, do I feel I understand that afternoon, as I watched him gaze distracted out the window of our London office, trying to comprehend from afar his city under siege. In fact, I learned more about the Balkans in a few hours that September 11 than I had in a decade following five wars throughout the former Yugoslavia.

If this, as Washington declares, is war, parallels with the Balkans are numerous. My sister has run hot food to firemen laboring past exhaustion in the moonscape of dust and sludge. No one downtown talks in detail about the impending war, she says, about America and the Muslim world, and the intricacies of an attack on whom and where. They are too busy worrying about the basics: water, food and the grim task at hand.

So too, Sarajevans had little really to say about this peace plan or that, or British vs. French policy on intervention. But waiting for water, scrounging for firewood, dodging the snipers - about these they could tell you everything. At ground zero, high politics hardly matter.

Identity, however, is everything. Bosnians, begging for support, cried, "We are Europeans too", trying to build a coalition based on shared cultures and values, while nationalist leaders throughout the region dehumanised the enemy, derided them as beyond the pale. Excusing their hesitation to get involved, Western leaders wrote off all the ex-Yugoslavs as savage, inherently violent, filled with "ancient ethnic animosities".

Now, a French newspaper declares movingly, "We are all New Yorkers". Indeed, never was there a more appropriate name for a building than World Trade Center - people from everywhere, and from every class and background, have suffered loss, and this has helped mobilise sympathy for America. The president calls for national unity - what in the Balkans was called "homogenisation" - while the "terrorists", a problematic term which always implies madness, are fanatics, incomprehensible, in all senses the Other.

In fact, the gravest risk is that, in the event of actual war, the distinction between the vast majority of Muslims and the fringe of radical Islam will collapse, allowing the conflict to be described in terms of religion, or in Samuel Huntington's sense, "civilisation". The lesson, as so well demonstrated in the Balkans: support the moderate core and resist all efforts to cast conflict in terms of peoples.

The essential component in this is individualising guilt. Pinning blame on specific leaders is seen as the sole hope to avoid engendering fresh resentments that lead to new conflict. Justice may not be the easiest way to end a current war, but it is the only way to head off the next.

So far, it would seem the United States has done this precisely, viewing Osama bin Laden as the primary suspect. Billions of dollars are allocated and tens of thousands of people are mobilised for a potential war against a single individual. This must be unique in the history of modern conflict.

Yet has the West really learned from its Balkan experiences? Having demonised leaders for decades in the pursuit of its political aims, Washington must understand the suspicion with which many outside America will greet its dossier of proof, especially when produced specifically as a cause for war.

We do not know the motivations of the hijackers. But it is perfectly possible that their acts arose at least in part out of a cycle of violence which has not yet even completed its first turn: a policy of bombing targets in Iraq which, merited or not, has not ceased for a decade. Care must be taken not to continue the cycle. There are more cherished buildings, bridges and people in our most international of American cities, not to mention other great US urban centers and the treasured jewels of Europe.

The lesson from the Balkans is the law. A leader responsible for far more deaths than those of last week sits in a jail in The Hague, waiting to be tried by the international war crimes tribunal. Slobodan Milosevic is to be prosecuted for his role in the Balkan conflict. The case, in fact, is not easy, and it has taken a full decade of tragedy before it could be brought - and many doubted it would happen at all. The hard evidence must be produced, tested and ultimately judged.

The tribunal is based on two key principles. The first is the truth, or its closest human approximate, proof "beyond a reasonable doubt". This is a standard of evidence that simply cannot be reached, nor certainly be seen to be reached, in the throes of war. It can only be found in a court of law.

The second - the fundamental reason for establishing the tribunal - is peace. As the West has so forcefully argued, there can be no reconciliation in the Balkans until the stain of collective guilt is removed. The most important tool for achieving this is the war crimes court.

The same will apply for America and the Arab world. It is crucial that whatever combination of steps is taken in the coming conflict, they are seen, especially from the Muslim perspective, not to add to that stain.

The run-up to war over Afghanistan is hobbled by a gap that could undermine these principles, namely, the absence of any credible independent judicial mechanism to identify the atrocity as a crime against humanity. Should Washington head into early fighting, it will be on the basis of evidence given political but not judicial review. Indeed, war - with likely high civilian and military casualties - could thus be fought over merely the suspicion of guilt.

A country may be attacked based on President Bush's proposition that a state is as guilty as the terrorists it harbours. As Geoffrey Robertson QC argues, "this is incorrect in law (unless those who run the harbouring state know of their plans) and affords no moral mandate for killing its innocent and oppressed citizens."

While the desire of any nation to try crimes on its territory in its own courts is understandable, an international criminal court, so far opposed by the US, could provide a more credible forum to try what can be described as an international war crime. Harbouring states might also be more willing to transfer indictees to a court which was truly international. And if US troops were subject to its jurisdiction, so much the better for making the case for just war.

The single best honour paid to the victims of the Balkans has been the advance in international law through The Hague tribunal, and the pain-staking, dignified manner in which the court has sifted through the evidence to reach its verdicts. Similarly, the United States could best honour the victims of Washington and New York by committing itself to what could be the best instrument for heading off future such attacks - international law and an international criminal court.

The vacant stare, the empty mind, the incalculable sorrow. It is one thing to interview a Srebrenica survivor, huddling against the wind in a refugee camp with only her children and a blue UNHCR tarpaulin for warmth. It is another, even at a remove, to be a survivor yourself.

Yet the West asked the people of the Balkans, through their extended years of pain, to seek justice under law, rather than vengeance under arms. Now, through our own grief, we should do the same.

Anthony Borden is executive director of the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

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