Radovan Karadzic, Omar Bashir and the realities of international law

Empowering Weak & Oppressed


Rajab 29, 1429 2008-08-01


by Editor (Editorials, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 6, Rajab, 1429)

The arrest in Serbia of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic on July 22 has understandably been greeted with celebrations around the world. During the Serbo-Croatian attempt to exterminate the Bosnian Muslims between 1992 and 1995, Karadzic was political leader of the Serbs living in Bosnia, whose forces (led militarily by Ratko Mladic, who remains a fugitive) were responsible for the most appalling atrocities of the war, including (but not only) the establishment of concentration camps such as those of Omarska and Trnopolje early in the war, the siege of Sarajevo, and the massacre of Srebenica in 1995. Thirteen years after being indicted for his responsibility for the deaths of nearly 8,000 men and boys at Srebenica, Karadzic had been living in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and working as an alternative medical practitioner under the pseudonym Dragan David Drabic. It is widely suspected that some in theBelgrade government had been aware of his identity and whereabouts but had protected him from arrest; and that the timing of his arrest at this time has much to do with the political interests of the new Serbian government elected in May. Meanwhile, the search for Mladic, his former partner in genocide, continues.

As events in Bosnia unfolded in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the collapse of the communist bloc in 1989, Muslims were initially surprised to discover the previously little-noticed Muslim population of central Europe, and then shocked by the attempt to exterminate them. The support of the Muslim world played a major role in the Bosnians’ successful resistance, and the likes of Karadzic, Mladic and former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic became notorious for their crimes against Bosnian Muslims. Muslims (and others) were elated when Milosevic’s trial at the Hague started in February 2002, only to be disappointed when it sank into a mire of legal bureaucracy and controversy that ended only with Milosevic’s death – still unconvicted – in March 2006. The problems of Milosevic’s trial have been widely discussed since then, with the whole idea of political leaders being tried for international crimes being questioned. Several commentators, such as Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian (July 23, 2008), have suggested that Karadzic’s arrest gives the ICTY an opportunity to redeem its discredited reputation – and indeed that of the idea of international justice – after the fiasco of Milosevic’s trial.

Some of the problems with the international legal system were highlighted just days before the arrest of Karadzic, when the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at theHague – a separate body from ICTY – issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar Bashir on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Although there is no doubt that there has been huge suffering in Darfur, the nature of the conflict there is disputed. The ICC has clearly been influenced by a major and one-sided political campaign in the West to misrepresent what is essentially a civil war as a campaign of genocide by the Sudanese government , and to blame the Sudanese government for all the suffering. In fact the situation on the ground in Darfur is far more complex; what started as a traditional African-style conflict over resources between distinct local groups has become progressively more complicated by the involvement of anti-government political forces that have support from overseas. Forces on every side have been responsible for atrocities; many of those associated with the government, such as the Janjaweed militias, are in fact independent local groups with their own separate agendas, over whom Khartoum has little influence (see Crescent International, September and November 2004).

Omar Bashir is by no means an Islamic leader – the Sudanese government lost any claim it might have had to Islamic legitimacy when Hasan Turabi was deposed in 1999 (and Turabi’s own subsequent role in Darfur needs some examination) – but nor is he a genocidal war criminal, as he is portrayed in the West. The fact that the ICC can take such a blatantly one-sided position exposes its political bias.

The fact is that legal institutions and processes can only operate as subsystems of political institutions; the idea of a totally independent judiciary is illusory. The international legal order is established and legitimised by the UN, which is dominated by the Western powers. However independent the legal structures may be in formal, institutional terms, the realities of this power relationship are inescapable, and reflected in decisions such as the one to indict Omar Bashir.

The question one must ask is whether the same institutions could ever be used to indict Western leaders who have clearly been seen to be in breach of international law; for example US president George W. Bush for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in general; individual atrocities such as the attack on Falluja in 2004 (no less an atrocity than the Serbian shelling of Sarajevo, for which Karadzic has been indicted); the maintenance of concentration and torture camps at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram airbase, Abu Ghraib and countless other places, many unknown; the extrajudicial assassinations of political opponents all over the world; and the kidnapping and transportation of political prisoners from foreign countries to Guantanamo. The answer is clear enough. Nor will allies of the West responsible for similar crimes ever find themselves indicted; Israeli leaders for their on-going ethnic cleansing of Palestine, for example, and their murderous attacks on civilians in Lebanon; or former British prime minister Tony Blair for his support of the US over Iraq. British liberals talk about the prospect of Blair facing trial – a dramatised version of events leading up to a future trial has even been broadcast on British television – but such talk serves only to give the international legal system a status that everyone know it does not have and does not deserve. And yet that is a reality of the international legal system that does not appear in the critiques of commentators such as Simon Jenkins.

Muslims may well celebrate the appearance of Karadzic in the dock at the Hague sometime soon, and feel an understandable sense of elation at seeing one of the architects of the Bosnian genocide facing trial for his crimes, but they need to be cautious about giving the international legal system a legitimacy that it does not deserve. The blatantly political indictment of Bashir should serve as a warning; all political systems are tempted to treat their opponents as criminals when they feel under pressure, and the indictment of Bashir may prove to be a precursor for similar actions against other, more dangerous enemies. It would not be surprising, for example, to see president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran being indicted on spurious political charges in future; or Shaikh Nasrallah of Hizbullah or Khalid Meshaal of Hamas. Then Muslims could find themselves in the dubious poisition of attacking the same institutions that they supported when they were used against Milosevic and Karadzic.

The fact is that the indictment of Bashir sets a precedent that is dangerous not only for Muslim political leaders who find themselves under attack from the West, but for Islamic-movement leaders in particular. It confirms, if anyone had any doubts, that no part of the international institutional order can be free from the political dominance of the West; and that all parts must be treated with the greatest caution by those who oppose Western hegemony and have reason to fear the vengeance of the West and its leaders.

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