Justice died with Milošević’s premature end

Just before the new year, Nevenka Tromp’s book Prosecuting Slobodan Milošević: The Unfinished Trial was translated into Albanian. The book comes out just some weeks before the 22nd anniversary of the Reçak massacre, a mass killing of 45 Kosovo Albanian civilians by Serbian Police and Yugoslav Army led by Goran Radosavljević. 

The Reçak massacre was only included in the Milosevic case, while excluded in the Milutonovic and Djordjevic trials by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. However, the perpetrator – Radosavljevic – is now a senior member of Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party – the current president of Serbia and he did not appear in any case prosecuted by the ICTY let alone face trial for the crimes he committed in Kosovo. 

In her book, Nevenka Tromp brings an excellent summary and analysis of the work done by prosecutors, investigators, and researchers of the ICTY in the Milošević case, which presented his crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and against his political opponents in Serbia. Nevenka brings to the reader’s attention the leader, ideology, and plan that brought so much pain and destruction to Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia itself.

But above all, this book shows the finality of an individual’s death and the lack of a verdict against him, a verdict that would have had an unimaginable weight and impact on history and the political relations in the Western Balkans region.

But to date very few have realised how damaging Milošević’s death has been for the victims, for history and the course of political development in the region. With the failure to sentence Milošević, the spirit of justice failed and a wave of glorification of war criminals, revisionism in the region, and the return of those who served him with loyalty in Belgrade was unleashed. There was no end of history in the Western Balkans.

With Milošević’s death and the lack of a verdict against him, Serbia did not have to face its past. A combination of a slow, bureaucratic international justice system and intransigence by Serbia made the ICTY fail to have its final say; that Serbia, through the state apparatus and through a leader, an ideology, and a concrete plan, committed crimes against humanity and genocide in an attempt to create a Greater Serbia, an ideology that still finds support in Belgrade among the political, military and academic elite and establishment.

With Milošević’s death and the arrest of Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, the European Union has given up on Serbia’s dealing with the past. This is not an issue for the international community anymore in the Western Balkans.

Today, many war criminals and many Milošević supporters still serve in the Serbian government, army and other institutions, murderers walk free without ever being questioned by any prosecutor for the crimes they have committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

The way Milošević’s trial unfolded reveals the many diplomatic attempts to reduce the “official” Serbian role in the Bosnian genocide, including key military and state documents being kept away from the public that would have had an impact on Bosnia’s genocide lawsuit at the International Court of Justice against Serbia.

This concealment had come with the full awareness of the ICTY Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, and Belgrade was allowed to submit secret documents with the assurances that they would not appear in public hearings and nor would show the clear and undeniable role of Belgrade in the Bosnian genocide. Those documents would have shed light on the central questions in the ICJ.

Carla Del Ponte helped Serbia to avoid an ICJ verdict that would directly blame and prove Serbia guilty of genocide in Bosnia. She was aware of this goal as Serbian officials had made clear to the ICTY they wanted the documents hidden or expunged to keep them from harming Serbia at the ICJ. Del Ponte’s claim that she did this to convict Milošević are irrelevant. Milošević did not get convicted due to his death, nor was Serbia found guilty of the genocide in Bosnia.

Such masquerades in the international justice system are found today in Kosovo. If UNMIK, the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, and EULEX, the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, statistics are taken, it turns out that the UN mission was far more committed to prosecuting war criminals, until 2008, but was not able to move forward with arrests due to a lack of diplomatic support and a mandate for the crimes that were within the scope of ICTY. Unlike EULEX, UNMIK has submitted hundreds of war crimes files and 95 per cent of those files have not been processed ever in court by EULEX, even though EULEX has had more ways to force Serbia to extradite war criminals through the EU accession process leverage. 

With Milošević’s death, for Kosovo and other countries of the former Yugoslavia, justice failed to be delivered.

This failure rehabilitated the elite that had supported Milošević. It failed to help the victims to find get justice but also stopped democratisation in Serbia because of the political, military, and academic elites who had supported their leader, the ideology of Greater Serbia, and the plan for the most heinous crimes against humanity were given amnesties.

By not convicting Milošević to prove the genocide and ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and by not showing Serbia guilty for the genocide in Bosnia, the era of revisionism began.

That is why today there is a lack of will on the part of the European Union to link Serbia’s path to the EU with the punishment of war criminals. But this is also the reason why the same EU insists that Kosovo should have a Specialist’s Chamber dealing with war crimes allegedly committed by Albanians, closing their eyes to crimes the Serbian military, police and paramilitaries committed in Kosovo. 

The purpose is clear. They aim to equate the Kosovo Liberation Army war for freedom and independence with a genocide perpetrated through a Serbian leader, a Greater Serbia ideology, and a concrete plan of mass-atrocities. A genocide committed by the Serbian state is intended to be amnestied. That’s why the same Specialist’s Chamber ignores dozens and dozens of war crimes and the plight of nearly 2 million civilians in Kosovo in the same time-frame of the mandate of the Specialist’s Chamber.

Facts established by the ICTY during trials indicate that at least 1,000 officers of the Serbian army and police, including high-ranking generals, were involved in the killings of civilians in Kosovo during the war. None have been charged by the international judiciary, let alone by Serbian courts. The few cases dealt with in Belgrade leave much to be desired.

Many in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina thought the world knows who is to be blamed and responsible for the wars and atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and who are the aggressor and the victims. But this was an illusion. Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina for more than 10 years are on their own, to tell the truth.

Serbia has fought to make the denial of crimes normal, creating a counter-narrative that creates a grey image of what happened in the ’90s, from which Serbia comes out with a clean history because the Belgrade narrative says that everyone is a war criminal and everyone is a victim. So, Serbia appears purer than it deserves to be, and than it is in reality.

Nevenka Tromp’s book presents a good analysis of why we have come to the point where Serbia feels comfortable about its past. This book is an important historical contribution to understand why hundreds of thousands died during the wars of the 1990s, and above all to understand is to blame. The book is the best weapon to fight the change of the narrative, the rewriting of history, and to raise the voice for the victims who are not finding justice.

If appeasement remains as a norm, it is books like that of Nevenka Tromp that remain useful tools to fight it.

This piece was co-authored by Muhamet Brajshori.

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