Comment 25 Jan 13

Delicacies and Denial at The Hague

When Serbia’s justice minister visited the Hague Tribunal and ate sweets with Ratko Mladic, it showed that Belgrade’s new government doesn’t want to take war crimes seriously.

Slobodan Georgijev

Maybe there is a hidden message in terms of regional cooperation and reconciliation in the fact that Serbia’s young justice minister Nikola Selakovic visited detainees at The Hague’s Scheveningen jail.

On the eve of the visit this month, he said that we should check the Croatian strategy over the past ten years and its results: generals like Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac have been cleared of war crimes and released, and the public is satisfied. Despite the predominantly gloomy feeling in Serbia when it comes to the recent Croatian acquittals, it seems that Belgrade officials are deeply impressed with their Zagreb counterparts. We should follow the Croatian model if we want to win at the ICTY, Selakovic appeared to be suggesting.

The Serbian media lost any substantial interest in covering trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, after Slobodan Milosevic died and the last of the top suspects were arrested and transferred to The Hague. When Ratko Mladic was caught one-and-a-half years ago, it was said that we were finished with the Tribunal.

But the ICTY returned to the headlines after the Croatian generals were freed and former Kosovo Liberation Army leader Ramush Haradinaj was released from the Scheveningen jail. The Serbian public, instructed by media reports and official statements, was angry and disappointed once again: how can one understand the idea of reconciliation in the region if all guilt has to fall on Serbian shoulders?

Selakovic’s visit may have been excellent PR for the ICTY, but unfortunately, a big step for that institution is a small step for regional reconciliation and an even smaller step for deeper understanding inside Serbia of the reasons why all these men were imprisoned.

It’s a good situation for the ICTY because it has become marginalised and it now looks like UN just wants the trials to be finished and the court closed down, so when a minister visits, it’s a big day for them all. I believe that all the judges and prosecutors were satisfied because they still have one country that is formally interested in the ICTY’s activities, which means that the Tribunal will secure its existence for several more years. We saw the smiles on the judges’ and prosecutors’ faces and their readiness to cooperate with the Serbian official.

During the more informal part of Selakovic’s visit, we were informed that he spent an entire working day talking with members of the “Serbian community” held at Scheveningen. One gave him a pie, another offered juice, and the biggest star of the Tribunal, Ratko Mladic, served him chocolate. Selakovic is a young man, 29; he can afford to eat sweets without consequences, but is this the most interesting thing about his visit, as the Serbian media seems to believe?

Selakovic wanted to know what these men need for their defence in court and promised that Serbia would do whatever is necessary to help them. He didn’t say what he meant or explain what Serbia’s interest is in these trials. Is it to have generals and government officials set free or to find out what happened in the wars in the 1990s and to accept responsibility?

According to Selakovic’s strategy, copied from Croatia, our national interest is to protect “our people”, so Serbia is going to invest in their defence in order to have them back in their homeland as free men, reunited with their families.

I do believe that Selakovic strongly believes in their innocence because he has repeatedly shown commitment to the idea that the state should get more involved in those trials. He has also supported protests organised by far-right organisations in front of the Serbian parliament against the decisions of the Hague Tribunal in the Gotovina and Markac case.

Considering all this, it seems that after years of the ‘policy of forgetting’, we now have a ministry that advocates a policy of denial and a stronger motive for “defending those who were chosen by the people  Serbia”, as Selakovic explained.

It is sad that he never showed any interest, even rhetorically, in those who suffered and were killed by forces controlled by the Hague detainees. Those victims will remain in the shadow of the new proclaimed national interest: to protect our collective self-image and our people who suffer in jail like political prisoners.


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