Mladic, war crimes and the West: unasked questions

The response to the arrest of the former Bosnian Serb commander shows how some pine for the good v evil parable of their Balkan crusade.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics World

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There has been much pious talk about how the arrest of the former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic on war-crimes charges will bring closure to many victims of the war in the former Yugoslavia. But ‘closure’ is the last thing the Western authorities want in relation to the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. They want to keep the wounds open, keep the horror alive, in order to remind us all of a time when the West could pose as a force for Good against the Evil of the Serbs in the civil wars that wracked the former Yugoslav republics.

Indeed, the more zealous campaigners for Western intervention must look at Mladic today with a sense of nostalgia, for that faraway golden age when they were widely seen as being on the side of the angels – before the disaster of Iraq, the drawn-out debacle of Afghanistan, and the derisory war on Libya. An age when the Western authorities could set themselves up to sit in judgement on the world in the war-crimes tribunal at The Hague – a far cry from today, when the US government cannot even assassinate the world’s most infamous terrorist without being accused of committing a war crime itself.

Whether or not Mladic gets a procedurally ‘fair trial’ before the International Tribunal at The Hague is irrelevant. Judgement has already been passed, as the world’s media declares him ‘the Butcher of Bosnia’, guilty of the most heinous crimes against humanity seen in Europe since the Second World War, most notably the Srebrenica massacre. spiked has no interest here in siding with Mladic, or with any participants in the Balkan conflicts. But, as throughout those wars, there is a need to question the political myths and the moral crusading that have been used to justify Western intervention and cloud the issues at stake.

In that spirit, there are a few questions that are unlikely to be properly addressed during the drawn-out legal circus of Mladic’s forthcoming trial.

Why did Srebrenica happen? For most commentators this is a simple issue: the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces under Mladic’s command was a demonstration of evil incarnate, the ‘worst act of genocide in Europe since Auschwitz’. What more need be said or asked about such a heinous crime against humanity?

In reality, matters were slightly more complicated than such a black-and-white parable suggests. Srebrenica was not about good and evil, but about politics and war. It can only be properly understood by being placed in the context of the bloody and bitter civil conflicts that followed the unravelling of Yugoslavia – conflicts that were perpetuated and intensified at every turn by the intervention of the US, Britain, Germany, France and other foreign powers. In those wars, atrocities were committed on all sides. For example, the Bosnian Muslim forces in Srebrenica had been brutalising the surrounding Bosnian Serb villages before the counter-offensive.

There is no doubt that Bosnian Muslims were murdered at Srebrenica. But as has been argued before on spiked, everything from the numbers involved to the circumstances of their deaths is far more open to question than the standard version of the parable might suggest (see How did Srebrenica become a morality tale?, by Tara McCormack). Taking these events out of their historical and political context and trying to link them to Auschwitz is about creating a morality play of good and evil rather than understanding what happened – and why.

What is a war crime? The legitimacy of the legal term ‘war crime’ is something that the war-crimes tribunal at The Hague has taken for granted, since to do otherwise would be to call its own rationale into question. Yet it is a highly questionable notion, suggesting as it does that there is a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ way to wage a war – and that the West plays by the rules. But war is not cricket. It is a violent struggle for power or survival in which there are no holds barred. To single out some acts of war as crimes makes no more sense than to suggest that other acts of war are harmless pastimes.

The idea of a war crime, dating from the trials of Nazi and Japanese leaders at the end of the Second World War, is essentially a political device used to draw a line between the wartime activities of the West and the rest. Even in the trials of the 1940s, this involved glossing over the way that the British and Americans had also bombed civilians and butchered their enemies. In the 1990s, it involved setting up the Serbs as the new Nazis, to boost the moral authority of the West and justify intervention.

The double standards of the war crimes courts today are as obvious as they are frequently ignored. So as Brendan O’Neill recently reported, the International Criminal Court has to date only tried and convicted black leaders for crimes against humanity (see The ICC and the Heart of Darkness, by Brendan O’Neill). Meanwhile, the furthest the Yugoslav court at The Hague has gone to levelling the playing field is to convict a few of the West’s former Croatian and Bosnian Muslim allies, alongside Serbs, for their part in the conflicts of the 1990s. Well, in the end, they are all wogs, aren’t they?

This is not to suggest, as some do, that the likes of George W Bush and Tony Blair should also be tried for war crimes over the deaths of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, or that the assassination of Osama bin Laden should be deemed a crime. (Strangely, however, these critics do not seem to think Blair and Bill Clinton should be held to account for their ‘illegal’ 1999 war against the Serbs over Kosovo…) To sink into such legal cretinism would be to play their game. Better by far to question the entire notion of war crimes as a bewigged front for imperialism and an obfuscation of the causes and consequences of wars, ‘legal’ or otherwise.

Who gave these judges the right to judge the world? The war-crimes courts are not primarily legal, but political institutions. They were established as putative pillars of the post-Cold War order, in order to shore up the West’s global authority by allowing it to sit in judgement on the rest of the world. Just as Western intervention from Bosnia to Libya turns local conflicts into international wars, so these tribunals have sought to redefine local wars which offend the West as crimes against humanity.

This has nothing to do with justice or fairness, despite all the courtroom trappings. These courts are not appointed by or accountable to the peoples whose conflicts they rule on and whose fate they help to decide. They are creatures of ‘international law’ – an almost entirely illegitimate creation that floats high above such grubby notions as democracy or national self-determination to pass judgement on the common global herd below. The international judges and lawyers have got so far above themselves that they might even cause problems these days for the Western authorities whose interests they were supposed to serve. That does not make them any more legitimate.

Whose war is it anyway? That was the title of a little pamphlet I wrote in 1997, criticising the way in which the Balkan wars had been turned into a moral crusade by British and Western politicians and journalists who were searching for a Cause that might give then some new meaning and sense of purpose so lacking in domestic politics. The Nazification of the Serbs was to be a self-serving means to those ends; if they were little Nazis, then ‘we’ must be little Churchills. It began with the ‘laptop bombardiers’ of the liberal media demanding a ‘humanitarian’ war, moved on when NATO launched the first-ever bombing raids of its life against the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, and ended with failed British politician Paddy Ashdown effectively being appointed UN colonial governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The reaction to the arrest and forthcoming trial of Mladic shows how some in the Western political and media elite still hanker for those simpler times when their worldview could be easily divided into good and evil and they could pretend they were re-fighting the Second World War against the Nazi Serbs. There has been much muttering about the political motives of the Serbian authorities in apparently engineering his capture at the moment they are negotiating over entry to the EU. Far less has been said however about the political motives of many in the West who have relished the chance to hold up the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ once more as the symbol of evil against whom the good guys of the civilised world can unite, rather as the other inmates can join a moral consensus against the prison ‘nonces’.

So alongside the talk of ‘closure’, there has been much excited discussion about how the capture of Mladic, even 16 years on, gives the war-crimes tribunal the chance to redeem its reputation – and that of the West. The survivors and relatives of Srebrenica are little more than human shields in this political circus staged by the Western authorities for the moral instruction of the world. They’re so vain, they think that somebody else’s life-and-death struggle is about them.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

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Topics World


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