Published on Saturday, August 4, 2001 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Sorry About That War Crime
by John MacArthur
I wasn't sorry to see Slobodan Milosevic hauled off to The Hague to face charges of war crimes against Kosovar Albanians. He's an unsympathetic character at best, though I can't help but note pathos in the face of a man born of two parents who committed suicide. Mr. Milosevic always seemed a good potential patient for his fellow Serb nationalist, Radovan Karadzic, the psychologist and accused war criminal with a similar bent for killing "the Turk," as Moslems have been known since the time of Ottoman rule in the Balkans.
Nevertheless, all the self-righteous harrumphing about nailing the latest international baddie has made me pause before cheering on the tumbrels of justice. The rhetoric of the Western powers is too triumphal to be fully credible.
For one thing, Mr. Milosevic was essentially sold for cash to the International War Crime Tribunal (read NATO), a transaction that doesn't quite qualify under the rubric of high principle. The Western aid package of $1.28-billion to war-damaged, money-starved Serbia was, shall we say, nakedly premised on the new government's handover of its biggest PR and political problem.
But even more disturbing is the rank hypocrisy now on display by the countries that provide the bulk of the funds for the war crimes court. In recent years, a remarkable number of Western military men have either confessed to war crimes or been revealed as war criminals -- yet for some reason the calls for their arrest or the arrest of their political masters have been almost nonexistent. Indeed, confessing war crimes -- or at least not really denying them -- seems to be the best guarantee of immunity from prosecution these days.
The allegedly tolerant, multi-ethnic Bosnian government of Alija Izetbegovic isn't a bad place to begin the list of overlooked, but largely admitted sins of commission. In 1992, at the beginning of the Serbian siege of Sarajevo, Moslem paramilitary units staffed by members of the 10th Mountain Brigade went on a vengeful killing spree of Serb civilians inside the city. Led by Musan Topalovic, an officer known as "Caco," Bosnian soldiers cut Serb throats, burned at least one Serb alive and dumped Serb bodies into an 80-foot-deep crevice.
When the carnage ended, Chris Hedges of the New York Times reported, the total number of victims apparently reached into the hundreds. Officially, the Bosnian government disapproved of this sort of thing and "Caco" eventually died under mysterious circumstances. But his government's demurral was unconvincing, given that the murders were detailed in a letter from the Bosnian army's deputy commander, a Serb, to President Izetbegovic in May, 1993.
"People at the highest levels, people in the presidency, knew these killings were going on and did nothing until October 1993 to stop them," Gen. Jovan Divjak told Mr. Hedges. "I informed them about these killings. But the support of these paramilitary groups was convenient for the authorities."
Then there's the French army report that Bosnian government snipers killed civilians in Sarajevo and blamed it on the Serbs to provoke international sympathy for the Bosnian cause. Mr. Izetbegovic hotly denied this charge, but the French peacekeepers seemed awfully sure of themselves.
Of course, chaos was the rule in the former Yugoslavia and it wasn't always clear where the shooting was coming from. Things are better organized elsewhere in Europe -- like in France, where a retired general recently confessed to the torture and killing of Arab rebels in the mid-1950s during the Algerian war for independence.
At 83, Paul Aussaresses revealed that he personally tortured and killed 24 Algerian prisoners, an "efficient" operation that he said left his conscience clear. Perhaps he felt no qualms because he claimed that he acted with the full knowledge and approval of France's then-justice minister, a former Vichy bureaucrat and future champion of human rights named François Mitterand.
French President Jacques Chirac pronounced himself shocked by the revelation, but he proposed no sanction more serious than suspending Mr. Aussaresses from the Legion d'honneur. To date, no space has been made for Mr. Aussaresses or his still living colleagues at The Hague.
Mr. Aussaresses' candor must have inspired his Russian counterpart, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Moltenskoi, who last month announced that his men had engaged in "widespread crimes" against Chechen civilians during a "mopping up" operation against rebels. The crimes included beatings and on-the-spot electric shock, with some sacking of homes and a hospital thrown in for good measure.
"Those who conducted the searches did so in a lawless fashion, committing numerous outrages and then pretending that they knew nothing about them," Lt. Gen. Moltenskoi was quoted as saying. This hardly does justice to the Russian army's suppression of the Chechen rebellion, which has involved killing a good many civilians. But, thus far, I've heard no calls to balance the scales of international justice with President Vladimir Putin as a counterweight.
If we delve further back, the roll call gets longer: the living and recently deceased Italian soldiers under Mussolini whose atrocities against Greeks, Serbs, Ethiopians and Jews have been, with U.S. approval, largely ignored for more than 60 years. One of the most notorious, Giovanni Ravalli, died only in 1998, fully exposed but completely unpunished for crimes ranging from having a Greek policeman's teeth pulled out with pliers to ordering boiling oil poured over 70 other prisoners.
And let's not forget North America's own highly indictable war crimes suspects, most prominent among them Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara. Mr. Kissinger's dossier as national security adviser and secretary of state is more diverse than Mr. McNamara's -- comprising atrocities and political murders in Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile and elsewhere that number in the hundreds of thousands -- but Mr. McNamara's oversight of the napalming of Vietnamese civilians as Lyndon Johnson's secretary of defense by itself merits inquiry.
I suppose that the chattering class liberals who bellow for Mr. Milosevic's head can defend their double standard on the technicality that the United Nations Tribunal wasn't created until 1993 (although there are plenty of people who contend that international law covering pre-1993 war crimes is sufficient to begin prosecutions). Or they might cite La Rochefoucauld's aphorism, "Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue."
But these are sham arguments if the United States and Europe really believe in equal justice under law -- international or otherwise -- and Mr. Milosevic had a point when he defiantly declared to Judge Richard May that "I consider this tribunal a false tribunal and indictments false indictments."
The truth is that the deposed Serbian president was a small-time operator, especially compared with Mr. Kissinger. But he makes a convenient scapegoat for Western policy failures -- for example, Germany's hasty, unilateral recognition of Croatian independence from Yugoslavia, which inflamed paranoia among Serbs whose families were decimated by Nazi, Croatian and Italian war crimes in the Second World War.
Mr. Milosevic is also the scapegoat for the vainglorious United States, which wants the right to punish "rogue" states it happens not to like for the moment (like its former ally Iraq) while acting quite roguishly outside the purview of international law. In this light, the courtroom drama in The Hague becomes a version of the scene in Casablanca where Louis, the sentimental, two-faced Vichy cop, changes sides to permit the escape of the anti-Nazi Victor Lazlo. "Round up the usual suspects," he tells his men with faint irony, and so they do.
John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's Magazine.
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