The Two Faces of Europe

Stephen Sylejman Schwartz Executive Director, Center for Islamic Pluralism

Stephen Sylejman Schwartz

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The final week of March brought news that revealed the degree to which Europe has fallen into crisis.  First, on March 31, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), at The Hague, acquitted Vojislav Seselj of war crimes he allegedly committed during the Serbian aggression of the 1990s against Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Kosova.

The Seselj verdict was a shock.  A week before, Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Serbian uprising that resulted in the partition of Bosnia, was found guilty of genocide by the ICTY and sentenced to 40 years in prison.   The verdict against Karadzic was based mainly on his involvement in the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys and Srebrenica, and his leadership of the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo, in which thousands of civilians were killed by Yugoslav army and Bosnian Serbian forces.

All those who suffered in or otherwise observed the bloodshed in the Balkans that began 25 years ago know that Seselj, from Belgrade, was no less responsible than Karadzic for the human toll in the assault on Serbia’s neighbors.  In the Kosovar case, the Serbian leadership and its local nationalist fanatics violated human rights by mass murder, rape, and destruction in a territory they had occupied since 1912.   In addition, Serbian intrigues against the independence of Kosova continue today, by violent as well as political means.  As pointed out by The New York Times on March 31, the bloody trail included outrages in Vojvodina, Serbia’s remaining “possession.”

The apparatus of Serbia’s brutal campaigns was led by Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 at The Hague, Seselj, Karadzic, and Ratko Mladic, who remains on trial before the ICTY.

Of these four, Seselj, head of the Serbian Radical Party, was always the most inflammatory in his rhetoric.  As described in the original charge sheet, he was accused of 14 counts of persecution on political, racial, or religious grounds; murder; torture and cruel mistreatment; deportation and similar inhuman acts; wanton destruction, or willful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion or education, and plunder of public or private property.  These were later reduced to nine counts, three involving crimes against humanity and six representing war crimes.

In the Karadzic case, the ICTY judged the defendant to have participated in “joint criminal enterprises” (JCEs).  But in the Seselj proceeding, the Tribunal downgraded the violence of the Belgrade clique.  It found that “the Prosecution failed to prove the existence of a criminal purpose, a legal requirement to the JCE. The Majority concluded that the objective of the creation of Greater Serbia was more of a political venture than a criminal project.”  The ICTY determined that Seselj’s recruitment of volunteers to carry out this “venture” was “a legal activity regulated by the Yugoslav constitution and other relevant laws at the time. In any event, the Majority [with one dissent] concluded that the volunteers, once recruited and sent to the front, were not under the authority of Vojislav Seselj, but rather under military command.”

Inexplicably, the ICTY’s case against Seselj was restricted to the period of the Serbian assault on Croatia, from August 1991 to September 1993.  The continuous stream of hateful incitement to which Seselj and his cohort dedicated themselves throughout the period, against Muslims and Albanians, was held to be no more than enthusiastic rhetoric directed to his volunteers.  The ICTY stated that while the Prosecution argued that Seselj “directly committed a certain number of crimes, notably by public and direct denigration, in speeches inciting hatred of the non-Serbian population [, f]or some of those speeches, the Majority [again with one dissent], could not rule out the reasonable possibility that they were made in a context of conflict and were meant to boost the morale of the troops of his camp, rather than calling upon them to spare no one.”

And yet, as we know so well, in too many cases, no victim was spared.

The ICTY, anticipating protests against the verdict, affirmed that it “fully understand[s] that many victims and communities will be disappointed by the Trial Chamber’s judgment.”  That is little consolation for those to whom justice has been denied.

What is the meaning of the ICTY’s ambiguity in its treatment of Karadzic and Seselj?  Afflicted with cancer, Seselj had been allowed to return to Belgrade for treatment, and the ICTY may have recognized that it probably could not secure his return to The Hague for the 28-year jail term proposed by his punishment.

One thing must, I think, be said:  in exonerating Seselj the ICTY put itself on the side of the disreputable section of global opinion that denies the genocidal nature of Serbian aggression.  The same conspiratorial propagandists who see no inhumanity in the Serbian massacres of Croatians, Bosnians, and Kosovars during the 1990s negate the truth about the Al-Qaida atrocities of September 11, 2001.  All, according to such folk, is a media sideshow “demonizing” Serbia, Saddam Hussein, and even Osama Bin Laden, and justifying their purported martyrdom at the hands of the West.

The ICTY is visibly exhausted.  Its statement on Seselj noted, “Since its establishment, the Tribunal has indicted 161 persons for serious violations of humanitarian law committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 2001. Proceedings against 149 have been concluded. Proceedings are currently ongoing for 11 accused.”  The staff at The Hague seem anxious to wind up their activities and retire to their homes.

Thousands of Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovars saw their homes destroyed by the Serbian invaders incited by Seselj and cannot share the comfortable future promised to the functionaries of the ICTY.  Mass graves continue to be discovered; disappeared individuals may never be located or their remains identified.

Europe is, in general, exhausted.  Its diplomacy has sunk back to the level of confusion seen in the first decade of the 20th century, when it vacillated in its treatment of the Ottoman dominions in Europe, the belligerence of Serbia, and the subordination of Albanian aspirations.  The failure of Europe to anticipate, rather than to react to events, is nowhere clearer than in the grotesque shambles made of its border policies with the rush of migrants into Greece from Turkey.   Europe did not act to stay the cruelty of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad; Germany then promised to welcome his victims, but the system broke down.

In a news item that was different but, in its way, relevant, March 31, the day the Seselj absurdity was announced, the Hungarian Jewish writer Imre Kertesz, who survived Auschwitz, the German death camp, died at 86.  In 2002, Kertesz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  His writings focused on his experience at Auschwitz and his commitment to explaining, to the world, that genocide could take place at any time or place, in any country.  He represented the better face of Europe.

The Washington Post, in writing on the death of Kertesz, quoted his comment, “Auschwitz is everywhere.”  The Balkan wars of the 1990s proved that to be true.  But Auschwitz, as Kertesz understood, was made possible by the indifference of powerful “humanitarian” states and institutions to the destiny of those deemed inferior by ruthless demagogues.  The lessons taught by Kertesz apply to the ICTY as well: moral fatigue kills.

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