Update 19 November 2012: I am very grateful to Mark Kersten at the Justice in Conflict blog for inviting me to expand upon the below piece and guest post it there. For a fuller treatment of the issues arising from last Friday’s Gotovina judgment, readers are therefore referred to my post at Justice in Conflict, entitled “The aftermath of the ICTY’s Gotovina Trial: Due process and Historical truth“.
by Rhodri C. Williams
In April 2011, Trial Chamber I of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted two Croatian Generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač to lengthy jail terms for their parts in planning and carrying out ‘Operation Storm’, a 1995 offensive that resulted in the flight of 250,000 Croatian Serbs. Today, in what has been described as “one of the most comprehensive reversals of the tribunal’s 19-year history”, the Appeals Chamber eviscerated the Trial Chamber’s findings and ordered the immediate release of both defendants.
This shock reversal is likely to generate intense legal and political debate, with Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić having immediately claimed that it confirms that the ICTY is “not a court” but rather “fulfills pre-determined political tasks.” According to the summary read out in court this morning, the Appeals Chamber accepted the defense’s key arguments, first that the shelling of four Serb-held towns at the outset of the offensive had not been unlawful, and second, that absent unlawful shelling, the Trial Chamber’s finding of a ‘joint criminal enterprise’ (JCE) to permanently remove the Serb population of the region could not stand.
As described in TerraNullius at the time of the Trial Chamber decision, the finding of the existence of a JCE by the Trial Chamber allowed the defendants to be imputed guilt for a range of discriminatory actions and policies that accompanied the offensive including the ex lege cancellation of urban-dwelling Croatian Serb refugees’ rights to their ‘socially owned’ apartments. As set out in the summary of today’s decision (page 4), the rejection of a JCE removed this link:
With respect to liability via JCE, the Appeals Chamber observes that the Trial Chamber’s conclusion that a JCE existed was based on its overall assessment of several mutually-reinforcing findings, but the Appeals Chamber, Judge Agius and Judge Pocar dissenting, considers that the Trial Chamber’s findings on the JCE’s core common purpose of forcibly removing Serb civilians from the Krajina rested primarily on the existence of unlawful artillery attacks against civilians and civilian objects in the Four Towns. While the Trial Chamber also considered evidence concerning the planning and aftermath of the artillery attacks to support its finding that a JCE existed, it explicitly considered this evidence in light of its conclusion that the attacks on the Four Towns were unlawful. Furthermore, the Trial Chamber did not find that either of the Appellants was directly implicated in Croatia’s adoption of discriminatory policies.
When the dust settles, it may well turn out that the Trial Chamber went too far with its JCE finding and that the Appeals Chamber was right to tighten the scope of the inquiry to focus on what criminal acts could be directly and unambiguously attributed to the defendants in this case. On the other hand, few serious observers doubt that the highest political and military leadership in Croatia at the time would not have lost much sleep if not one Serb had ever returned to the region. However, as one might fear, the Court’s narrow ruling on General Gotovina and Markač has quickly been read as a blanket vindication of Croatia’s conduct and aims during its 1991-95 war. As reported in the Guardian:
Gotovina’s defence lawyer, Greg Kehoe, said the appeal verdict demonstrated that Croatia’s Operation Storm in 1995 to regain control over the last Serb-run enclaves on its territory had been entirely legitimate under international law.
“This judgment vindicates that operation as a proper and just attempt to bring back that land into Croatia. More importantly, it vindicates what kind of soldier General Gotovina was,” Kehoe said.
At a broad level, the Gotovina case may hold the same lessons on the limitations of international criminal law that the European Court of Human Rights’ Cyprus cases have demonstrated with regard to human rights law. Litigation inevitably and necessarily disappoints by applying a zero-sum approach to complex historical problems in which all parties have almost always been cast both in the role of victims and victimizers. To treat Gotovina 2 as an absolution of Croatia’s well-documented sins is patently absurd and will only complicate the way to a long overdue regional reckoning with the past. Ultimately, Croatia can only legitimise its own narrative of victimhood by recognising the validity of those of its victims.