Rough justice, EU-style

By forcing countries to trade alleged war criminals for accession rights, the EU puts politics at the heart of the Hague Tribunal.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

What do buses and Yugoslav war criminals have in common? After years of waiting for indictees to be handed over to the Hague Tribunal, all of a sudden they are all arriving at once. Hardly a day goes by without news of the tribunal’s newfound credibility and success. Alleged war criminals from Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Albanian military units are apparently being banged to rights – and it appears this is partly down to the European Union (EU), which has used the issue to ensure that potential member states in the region understand that justice and the rule of law are essential to the membership process.

One of the central aims of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was held to be that of ensuring that people of the region took responsibility for the crimes allegedly committed in the name of ethnic and nationalist homogeneity. However, the EU’s self-appointed role of enforcing submission to the Hague Tribunal’s indictments means that current praise of the tribunal rings hollow. The tribunal process now has little to do with the states of the former Yugoslavia and has instead become a vehicle for the EU’s self-aggrandisement.

Of course, the tribunal process was always heavily politicised, with indictments used to prevent Bosnian Serb leaders from taking part in the 1995 Dayton peace negotiations, and the indictment of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic used to legitimise NATO’s controversial war in Kosovo. However, the EU has recently taken this to a new level with its use of the tribunal to discipline potential accession state governments, in what appears to be an attempt to enhance its moral and political credibility.

Croatia was publicly humiliated in March 2005 when its EU membership talks were called off, due to its failure to hand over General Ante Gotovina. (The general was indicted for his role in Operation Storm, the clearing of Croatian-Serb occupied territory in August 1995.) This highlights the disciplinary use of the tribunal in EU accession negotiations, and is far from being an isolated example. In June 2004, Lord Ashdown, the EU Special Representative with international executive powers in Bosnia, sacked 59 government officials from Republika Srpska for allegedly obstructing the capture of former Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and General Mladic. Meanwhile, the predominantly ethnic-Albanian government of Kosovo was taught a lesson in compliance when the prime minister Ramush Haradinaj was indicted and surrendered himself in early March 2005.

The EU may have gained a greater sense of purpose through disciplining potential accession states on the issue of war crimes. But its use of the Hague indictments only serves further to distance the Hague process from the people of the region. Indictees have been publicly praised for handing themselves in; they are seen as victims of the EU and as saviours of their country, satisfying Brussels bureaucrats by sacrificing their freedom.

Haradinaj received warm praise from international officials overseeing the country, who were well aware that the proposed plans for independence couldn’t gain EU support otherwise. Bosnian Serb indictees have been given heroes’ send-offs to the Hague, with government-sponsored farewell parties and tributes, and offers that the government would stand bail for them and look after their families. Bosnian Army General, Rasim Delic, was given full political and military honours at his send-off party at Sarajevo airport, with the Bosnian prime minister and 300 Bosnian army war veterans in attendance.

The EU has, in effect, absolved governments in the region from taking any responsibility for the judgement and punishment of their citizens. This is demonstrated by the fact that all the recent surrenders to the Hague tribunal have been voluntary. Rather than being seen as criminals, those volunteering to go to the tribunal have been cast as heroes, not for the actions undertaken in wartime but for their contribution to the nation’s interest in EU accession.

By directly linking EU accession with the handover of war crime indictees the EU has reduced the issue of war crimes to one of externally imposed bureaucratic necessity. It is just one of many hurdles set up by Brussels to mark the road to EU accession.

David Chandler is a senior lecturer in International Relations, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. See his webpage here.

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Topics Politics


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