Comment 12 Apr 13

Political Posturing Undermines Serbia’s UN Debate

The debate on war crimes courts at the UN General Assembly could have been a genuine chance to examine international justice and reconciliation, but it was marred by politically-motivated rhetoric.

Eric Gordy

The ‘thematic debate’ held in the UN General Assembly on April 10 carried low expectations from the beginning. General Assembly president (and former Serbian foreign minister) Vuk Jeremic wanted to get some political positions on the record following a disappointing decision by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY appeals chamber. Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic wanted, apparently, to get a deal regarding where people convicted by ICTY serve their sentences.

Other diplomatic missions from around the world seemed to regard the event either as a chance to declare a political position or as a distraction. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon probably expressed the general surrounding sentiment best when he made his obligatory welcoming statement and then got up and left.

Leaving the machinations behind the event aside, though, there was probably no good reason for it not to be held. In the first place it would be difficult to dispute that it is proper for the UN General Assembly to discuss the efficacy of UN institutions, while it is certainly also true that there is much to discuss.

In the second place, the theme of the ‘Role of International Criminal Justice in Reconciliation’ is so clearly important, as well as being interesting in its own right, that a public debate on the topic ought to be welcomed.

Unfortunately, aside from a few moments, the event saw little serious debate and a lot of posturing. It did less than it could have to advance understanding of international criminal justice and reconciliation, and probably did more to hurt than to help the interests of Serbia, whose senior representative in the UN organised the debate.

Claims of victimhood

Probably enough attention has already been paid to the main attraction, the address by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, that it is not necessary to go into detail here. In a highly rhetorically-charged speech penned by his adviser Oliver Antic, Nikolic rehearsed a litany of claims of victimhood, some historical and some contemporary, some actual and some imaginary, that sounded more like an exhortation given to a 1990s political rally than a statement delivered by a head of state to a global diplomatic body. Neither Serbia nor Mr. Nikolic will derive any advantage from his appearance before the UN.

As for the participants who were brought to advance the position of the country from which the president of the General Assembly hails, they largely said what they were expected to say.

In a few instances what they had to say was a bit bizarre. The former Canadian general Lewis MacKenzie gave a rambling address in which he principally spoke about himself. Lawyer Matthew Parish spoke passionately not so much about the instruments of international justice as about international justice in principle, which he described repeatedly as a “mess”.

Similarly, writer John Laughland argued not so much about particular institutions as about the principle of prosecuting perpetrators of human rights violations at all, which he contrasted unfavourably with what he represented as a time-honoured tradition of “forgetting” and “amnesty”.

The two participants brought over from Serbia to contribute to the discussion offered little more. Historian Cedomir Antic of the SANU Balkan Institute and former Krajina politician Savo Strbac gave political speeches that represented the state of the art in domestic research poorly.

It seemed a bit of a shame for these presenters to be put forward as the principal representatives of intellectual engagement on the issue of “the role of criminal justice in reconciliation” when there is no shortage of serious and credible researchers able to offer contributions on the question. While the UN General Assembly is of course not a scholarly institution, this was a case where high quality scholarly contributions could have been valuable and useful.

An opportunity wasted

On the positive side, there were interesting things to learn for people who followed the entire event and had an interest in learning interesting things. Charles Chernor Jalloh of the University of Pittsburgh offered an informative defence of the Organisation for African Unity’s proposal for a regionally-based court to complement the work of the ICC in Africa. John Ciorciari of the University of Michigan gave a detailed analysis and critique of the operation of hybrid tribunals, drawing heavily on his own experience in south-east Asia.

Some presenters who spoke on institutions directly related to the region were also serious and substantive. William Schabas of Middlesex University provided a balanced assessment of the experience and variety of ad hoc tribunals, and in several instances cautioned against exaggerated interpretations and extreme conclusions. Janine Clark of the University of Sheffield addressed problems of reconciliation directly, proposing measures to determine whether reconciliation has taken place and offering an interpretation of where institutions like the ICTY may be thought to have failed or succeeded.

These scholarly contributions were sadly overshadowed by the posturing for which the ‘thematic debate’ was designed. They offered an indication of the kind of understanding that could become available if the UN General Assembly or other public bodies were to engage with questions like justice and reconciliation genuinely, and regularly seek consultation with scholars and practitioners rather than with politicians and lobbyists.

Considering the low yield that this event is likely to generate for Serbia, which damaged its own credibility and the UN’s at the same time, it might be the case that this “thematic debate” will not be regarded as the most successful one in the GA’s history and that the effort will not be made again. This would be a shame. The four scholars who presented substantive papers offered an indication of the kind of discussion that could take place on questions of genuine global interest when the proceedings are not subordinated to a publicity stunt.

Scholars from the countries where international criminal justice initiatives are operating, and over which they have oversight, have a great deal to offer in terms of advancing understanding, and would have done so had they been invited (preferably to an event not poisoned in advance by political calculation). On this count there is a lot that the Serbian politicians engaged with the UN could do to help, once they decide to stop hurting themselves.

Eric Gordy is a senior lecturer at University College London.

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