International justice on trial

The capture of Radovan Karadzic is unqualified good news. Despite July 22 queue of Balkan pundits eager to destroy any hope of his getting an unadulterated trial, he was half the duumvirate that oversaw the worst atrocities committed on European soil in half a century. The other half, Ratko Mladic, is still on the run. Quite what Karadzic’s defence might be is obscure, unless it is that brutality, revenge and the fog of war have long been commonplace in the Balkans. It is not an argument that will appeal to the thousands of Muslim and Croat victims of his fraudulent Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Atrocities also committed against Serbs by Croats, notably in Krajina, in no way excuse the systematic Serb killings, especially in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. That Karadzic and Mladic have roamed free for 13 years since their indictment by The Hague tribunal in 1995 has been a disgrace both to the international rulers of Bosnia, including Britain’s Paddy Ashdown, and to Serbia itself. But now, with a newly elected government in power, a sort of closure is in sight.

Defenders of the international criminal court in The Hague protest its infancy. As the lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has written: “It has been a long and difficult struggle, legal, political and diplomatic, to hold political and military leaders accountable for crimes against humanity.” The concept of impunity for atrocities within sovereign states is now an acknowledged wrong but, says Robertson, it is one that will take time to establish.

This defence is wearing thin. It may well be that the world needs a lofty tribunal to enforce agreed standards of behaviour in war, and to call dictators to account. But every murder is a crime against humanity. The glamour of Nuremburg still hovers over a process

that has become bureaucratic and trespasses on conflicts that should be dealt with nationally. It is tempting to add that international lawyers who so conspicuously fail to put their professional house in order can hardly expect sceptical statesmen to give them free rein.

It is always better for a nation to seek atonement within itself, as many Serbs wanted in the case of Milosevic. He was handed over in 2002 by Serbia’s leaders in the hope of vast subsidies from EU membership, which did not materialise. Local justice might be rougher and tougher, but it compels warring parties to confront their past actions on their own territory, and before their own people. Such domestic “restorative justice” is a surer way to reconciliation. Karadzic should have faced his own people. His removal to The Hague is about barter not justice.

This tragedy is the outcome of a process of Balkanisation, in which the west was a bumbling but willing partner — as it is in Iraq and Afghanistan. The arrival of western troops and politicians in a country appears to be the inevitable precursor to partition. Governments that resist decentralisation within their own borders become ardent defenders of “plucky little” Kurdistan, Kosovo and Montenegro, and doubtless one day plucky Helmand, Waziristan and Baluchistan. Serbia has played ball.

It has served its time in purgatory and its long-term stability is crucial. The west now has a clear interest in opening up its trade and helping it on to its feet. That cannot begin too soon. — The Guardian