Comment 01 Apr 16

How Seselj’s Verdict Got History Terribly Wrong

In acquitting Vojislav Seselj of all charges, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia applied flawed logic, a bad understanding of history, and a stunning lack of decency and common sense.

Jelena Subotic Atlanta
Vojislav Seselj flag at a football match in Serbia. Photo: BETA.

Vojislav Seselj is a free man. In fact, he has been a free man for quite some time. Since his controversial release from detention at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY in 2014 to seek medical treatment in Serbia, Seselj just picked up where he stopped 13 years ago, when he was first arrested and charged with multiple counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Over the past two years he fully rejoined the Serbian political maelstrom, holding rallies, issuing regular statements on various political matters, and embracing with renewed zeal his old racist, nationalist, and warmongering rhetoric of the 1990s.

But as of yesterday, he is more than free. He is fully acquitted of any wrongdoing during the Yugoslav wars.

On all nine counts of crimes against humanity that included murder, persecution and expulsions of non-Serb civilians in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, the ICTY trial chamber concluded that he was a mere politician, and not a war criminal. A politician with somewhat unpleasant extreme right wing views, but not directly responsible for any criminal acts these views may have inspired his followers to engage in.

To help all shocked observers understand this logic, judge Jean-Claude Antonetti helpfully explained: “The propaganda of nationalist ideologies is not criminal.”

But Vojislav Seselj was not on trial for propaganda, and judge Antonetti certainly must know this, if he bothered to read the indictment. Seselj was on trial for his acts, not for his words, acts that have cost hundreds and hundreds of lives.

He organised armed murderous paramilitary forces to forcibly remove non-Serb civilians from their homes, steal their property, and kill those who resist. He threatened non-Serbs with rape (but not Albanian women because “they are too ugly for Serbian men”), slaughter (“with a rusty spoon so they don’t know if they died from slit throat or tetanus”), and genocide (“If NATO decides to bombs us… there will be no Albanians in Kosovo anymore”). And his words were not just bluster – he had a fully armed and organised militia, and referred to himself as its General - which he sent out to implement his murderous plans.

And for each of these, and many, many other examples of what Seselj actually did and not just said, the ICTY trial chamber had rebuttals. For the charge of ethnic cleansing as in Seselj’s actual words “we need to cleanse Bosnia of Muslims”, the judges concluded that he was just “galvanising the Serb forces”. For the charge of inciting war crimes in Vukovar by ordering his troops to “spare no one”, the judges concluded that he was “lifting his troops’ morale”. For the charge that he was sending a volunteer militia to fight on behalf of rebel Serb forces in Croatia, the judges concluded that they were sent to Croatia “to protect the Serbs”. For the charge that his troops forcibly expelled all Croats from a village in northern Serbia, the judges concluded that Seselj’s militiamen were just looking for accommodation for Serbian refugees. For the charge that Seselj organised population transfers in Bosnia and Serbia, removing non-Serb civilians from Serb controlled territory, the judges concluded that these civilians must have left on their own volition, to live with their ethnic kin.

Pity the trial chamber did not ask a survivor of this ‘humanitarian transfer’ if they, perhaps, felt grateful to Seselj’s ‘White Eagles’ militia for this act of kindness.

After about a dozen of these examples - lacking not only any grounding in historical facts, but also in basic logic and human decency - you’d be forgiven if you thought a time machine sent you back to 1993 and you were watching Slobodan Milosevic explain the war effort on Serbian national television. (If the time machine keeps Serbian TV on for a little longer, you may see Vojislav Seselj himself, spewing vulgar racist jokes, and a young man always at his side, looking in adoration, and nodding in agreement. Yes, that would be the current Prime Minister of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic).

But back to 2016. What happened yesterday was an embarrassment for the Tribunal. The embarrassment is not the acquittal itself – after 13 years of this bungled trial, unprofessional judicial conduct, replacement of trial judges, medical releases and their failed overturns – it was not going to be a shock had the trial just ended in mistrial. The embarrassment is in the rewriting of the history of the Yugoslav breakup in a manner that is not only outside all major scholarly consensus, but also in direct contradiction with what the ICTY itself has concluded in its previous cases.

Just last week, the ICTY convicted Radovan Karadzic of genocide and crimes against humanity in Bosnia. After yesterday’s verdict, one has to ask if the ICTY still believes that Karadzic and Seselj fought in the same war? In the same country? In the same century? On the same planet?

What the trial chamber carried out yesterday was an attack on the historical record, and on the historical transcript the ICTY itself have been creating these past two decades. The Seselj verdict so fundamentally changes the interpretation of the character of the Yugoslav wars that it flips the main causal chain of events completely backwards.

While most historical interpretations of the war emphasise Serbian expansionist policies under Slobodan Milosevic (often confusingly and imprecisely called the Greater Serbia plan) to be one of the major causes of the war, yesterday’s verdict reversed this causality to claim that Serbian policies were mere consequences of the Yugoslav breakup. Upon hearing this version of their past narrated from the bench of the highest international court, Serbian nationalist historians must have just popped their third bottle of champagne.

While the absurdity and internal contradiction of yesterday’s verdict may be preparing us for an overturn on appeal, we are left with the feeling that the ICTY seems to have decided that they had enough of Seselj, and that they don’t want to see him again. Too bad that choice is not an option for all the victims of Seselj’s atrocities and for the citizens of Serbia who, again, have to live the nightmare that is having Vojislav Seselj in their midst.

Jelena Subotic is Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is the author of ‘Hijacked Justice: Dealing with the Past in the Balkans’.

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