The prosecution of Ratko Mladic, who appears on Monday in The Hague, only serves to underline the organised naivete of the international community, and the infantile understanding of justice of one of its key instruments, the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Verdicts thus far handed down by the ICTY undoubtedly represent a contribution to the growth of the moral community. But, apart from the catharsis it has afforded victims, the court has failed to reach its goal regarding a renewal of interethnic trust in the post-Yugoslavian Balkans.
Denial that crimes took place at all, especially that genocide occurred in Srebrenica, still pervades much local discourse. Public protests after Mladic’s apprehension only corroborated the sense that verdicts against the architects and strategic executors of criminal enterprises have not resulted in catharsis among those on whose behalf these crimes were ostensibly committed.
The Serbian intellectual Professor Nenad Dimitrijevic is the author of an extraordinary new book, Duty to Respond: Mass Crime, Denial, and Collective Responsibility. In it he describes the nature of collective crime, noting that crimes of the recent past – committed against non-Serbs by some Serbs in the name of all Serbs – were collective. But a collective crime, according to Dimitrijevic, is more than just an aggregate of individual acts, and justice for such crimes must address more than just concrete acts committed by perpetrators, their co-conspirators and bystanders.
This is the crux of it. The moral consequences of the crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina are such that, on an ethical and cultural level, they require accountability on the part of the community in whose name they were committed, along with verdicts against those who committed them in the name of that group. However, to a great extent this has not happened.
A culture of denial is still the leading paradigm of Serbian social cohesion; on the social value meter, he who deceives is far ahead of she who exposes the truth. It is this reality that leads me to believe that the premise of the ICTY – to try key actors of the immediate post-Yugoslavian demiurge, but to individualise their responsibility – is in essence correct, but, in the context of its practical consequences, wrong. Its outcomes, after all, are not in line with its premise. To try leading political and military commanders as individuals, without relevant consequences for the regimes and projects they have created, organised and headed constitutes an injustice for victims as well as for those individuals. By individualising responsibility, the effect on history of these “gods of war” has been underestimated. They have not killed anybody by their own hand, so their verdicts lose purpose if they are not strongly tied to their social projects.
As things stand, the tribunal would be much more efficient if it were conceived as a court with a never-ending mandate, because its main purpose would be to try thousands of petty criminals, who would finally not be able to avoid justice. It is possible that at protests of support for Mladic in Republika Srpska (where there was a noticeable absence of Milorad Dodik’s ruling structures) and Serbia (where the government understandably distanced itself, as it had in fact sent Mladic to The Hague), demonstrators included people who committed war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Were these people tried and sentenced, they would not have the opportunity to transfer stories of mythical war heroism from generation to generation – and it is these stories, built around a concept of history, that influence a culture of denial.
Unfortunately, separating Mladic, Radovan Karadzic and others from their projects, reducing them to the status of mere criminals, has boosted the proliferation of history that is uninhabited by the truth. The truth, however, shines – as Umberto Eco notes – with its own clarity. It could not be any clearer that support for Mladic and his apotheosis in the media are an unfortunate endorsement of Dimitrijevic’s assessment that survivors of the atrocities of the 1992-1995 war have no reason to think that Serbian culture has abandoned the ideology that ignited aggressions. In other words, “no reason at all to believe we have become better people”.
Nerzuk Curak, a professor in the faculty of political sciences at the University of Sarajevo.