Bosnia war crimes tribunal and growth of international legal institutions

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Iqbal Siddiqui

Rajab 11, 1433 2012-06-01


by Iqbal Siddiqui (Opinion, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 4, Rajab, 1433)

In last month’s column, I reflected on the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnia War, which began in March 1992.

My focus was mainly on the distorted histories of the war created by the West and the fact that Muslims have largely forgotten its realities, particularly the contrasting roles of the West and the global Ummah as a result of these false memories, disillusion with subsequent developments in Bosnia and the distractions of numerous other contemporary historical traumas. These include the continuing problems in places like Palestine and Kashmir, and the ruthless brutality of the West’s war on Islamic resistance in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Pentagon in September 2001. Since then, we have seen significant developments in one of the key arenas in which the war remains in the public eye. On May 16, the trial of former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague finally began hearing the prosecution’s case against him, almost a year after he arrived in the Hague from Serbia. The session was characterised by shocking evidence of his crimes, including video film of some of the atrocities carried out by Serbs under Mladic’s command, and by Mladic’s own defiance in the dock, threateningly drawing his finger across his throat in the direction of Bosnians watching from the public gallery. A day later, the trial was suspended on technical grounds; it is now scheduled to resume on June 25, when the prosecution will call its first witnesses. Unsurprisingly, it is expected to last for several years.

These include the continuing problems in places like Palestine and Kashmir, and the ruthless brutality of the West’s war on Islamic resistance in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Pentagon in September 2001.

Mladic is the last of the three key Serbian leaders of the war years to go on trial at the tribunal. The trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic began in 2001 and was still continuing when he died in custody in the Hague in 2006. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is currently being tried after being arrested in Belgrade in 2008. They are among 161 people indicted by the tribunal, representing all parties in the Bosnian war (although the majority are Serbs), as well as others such as leaders of the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA or UCK), involved in Kosovar resistance to Serbian rule before NATO’s intervention in that conflict.

Since its establishment in 1993, the tribunal has had very mixed reviews. It was hailed at the time as an important and radically new sort of international judicial institution, ensuring that those responsible for some of the worst atrocities witnessed since the Second World War would be held accountable for their actions by the so-called international community. It has also become the model for various subsequent tribunals culminating in the International Criminal Court established in 2002 with a wider remit to prosecute various crimes against humanity more widely. At the same time, the tribunal has also been criticised on numerous grounds, for being “victor’s justice,” being unwieldy and slow, and for handing out inappropriately low sentences, such as the 10-year sentence given to Veselin Šljivančanin for his role in the notorious Vukovar massacre in Croatia in 1991, in which 264 Croats were taken from a hospital and killed.

When the ICTY was established, the idea that an international body could try those who had previously appeared immune from prosecution in a world based on national sovereignty was radical and was widely welcomed in view of the stories then emerging from the Bosnian war. Now it appears commonplace, with stories about the various tribunals and suggestions that people should be referred to them appearing almost daily in the news media. In recent months, we have seen former Liberian leader Charles Taylor convicted of 11 counts of crimes against humanity linked to the civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone. We have seen demands that Saif al-Qaddafi be transferred to the ICC for trial, rather than being tried in Libya. We have seen similar calls made against Bashar al-Asad of Syria as part of the international campaign to topple him. We have previously seen Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir become the first sitting head of state to be charged by the ICC. Equally commonplace is the fact that the justice that the courts represent is partial and biased: that the biggest criminals in the world, the leaders of Western powers widely recognised as being responsible for wars of aggression, and the appalling treatment and extrajudicial assassinations of political opponents around the world, are beyond its reach.

Responses to this fact among Western advocates of international justice vary. One view is that at least some people can be tried and that this is better than a situation in which none can be tried. Others maintain the pretence that the present situation can be a stepping stone toward a more complete judicial system, in which all political leaders can be held accountable for their actions, including American presidents and their allies in countries like Britain and Israel. A radical few recognise that the ideal of an international judicial system has in fact become only a tool used by those in power to put pressure on those around the world who resist their hegemony.

What Muslims must remember is very simple: there can be no justice without power. The legitimacy and morality of justice depends on the legitimacy and morality of the powers that administer it. However much we may celebrate the fact that monsters like Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic are facing some sort of court, and however much we may agree that some of the West’s other enemies deserve similar treatment, the judicial institutions established by the UN must ultimately serve the interests of that body’s masters. Those who seek to resist the hegemony of this world order, and the brutality of its leaders, must not make the mistake of legitimising any part of its power structures or institutions, for these will be used against us one day.

There will be justice on this earth one day, insha’Allah, when we succeed in establishing alternative power structures capable of targeting those genuinely responsible for the broadest fitnah in this world. But that may indeed be a very considerable way off. Until then, however, there is no point seeking justice through the institutions established to target us, however tempting that may be. Instead we can and should depend on the justice that these enemies of Islam will face in the next world if not in this one, knowing that Allah’s (swt) justice will be total, perfect and absolutely fitting even for the most appalling of crimes of those who currently regard themselves as all-powerful in this world and beyond the reach of any judgement.

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