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ICTY ends its mandate by confirming judgement against Bosnian Croats

Today, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, the ICTY, was supposed to pass its final words. Its last ruling was to be on appeal of the six Bosnian Croats accused of war crimes. But apart from individual responsibility, this ruling had much bigger implications because the original judgement[1] included a claim that the six were members of a joint criminal enterprise (JCE) together with the then Croatian President Franjo Tođman, Defense Minister Gojko Šušak, and Chief of General Staff Janko Bobetko[i]. In short, the stated aim of this JCE was to purge the Croatian parts of Bosnia of non-Croat population and create a territory to be governed by the Croats and eventually annexed to Croatia.

This creates a complicated situation in Croatia. For many years, its political leaders had to deliver a schizophrenic dual narrative: to its voters, including a significant number in Bosnia (and precisely in those parts to which the case refers) that it cares for them and that they are an integral part of the Croatian national body. In support, it provided them with dual citizenships, access to Croatian institutions and so on. At the same time, knowing that partitioning Bosnia was unacceptable to independent observers and the international community, whose support it needed, it supported the international efforts on Bosnia by participating in the Washington and Dayton agreements. This link has always been denied by official institutions. Now, these agreements do not quite provide the Bosnian Croats with their aims as determined in the present judgement, but they do provide a certain degree of self-government for Croats within the Federation. Unfortunately, there are indications that certain political options in Croatia[2] to this day support the idea that the Croats in Bosnia should get more, and which built a significant portion of their support among the people who support the same narrative. As they are currently in power it falls to them now to reconcile the two narratives and explain the judgement to their power base.

So far, reactions to the judgement have been more or less within the expected. The nationalist parties denounced the verdict and the court, mainly in parts that concern Croatia’s involvement, most opposition parties claim that even if the policy towards Bosnia in the 90’s was wrong it was not a joint criminal enterprise, and a few openly blame the early Croatian leadership for both the policy towards Bosnia and the policy towards the ICTY (albeit from differing perspectives).

Finally, most local observers note with concern that this is the only ICTY judgement in which a neighboring country is quoted as “occupying a part of Bosnia” and being a part of the JCE. Such qualifications cannot be found against Serbia for involvement in Bosnia, including in Karadžić and Mladić cases. This, in view of the many, leaves the judgement open to some serious criticism as to which criteria were used to determine involvement and its aims, but that is a different discussion. As it is, the judgement is in and all sentences were confirmed.

However, whole affair was deeply tainted by an incident that took place in the courtroom itself. As the judgement was read, general Slobodan Praljak whose sentence of 20 years was just being confirmed, denounced the court and drank from a small bottle. All reports indicate that he drank poison, and he later died in the hospital where he was taken from the courtroom.

There will, inevitably and rightly so, be questions put to the ICTY and its security providers as to how it was ever possible for a defendant to bring poison into the courtroom, and how come the guards did not prevent him from drinking it. This, as Florence Hartman reminded, was the second time this happened (first time was when Slobodan Milošević smuggled medicine which annulled the effect of his blood pressure therapy. He subsequently also died in jail.). This also diverts attention from the actual substance and will allow the whole proceedings to be viewed in a negative light.

Reactions from the region are so far muted. In Bosnia, reactions depend on where the commentators belong in ethnic and political terms – Bosnian Serbs see this as another proof that the ICTY is  driven by a political agenda, Bosnian Croats deny any wrongdoings on the part of the accused, and Bosniaks appeal for calm and respect for judgements of the court; and all of those reactions are within expectations.

But overall impact of this judgement is yet to be felt. There will inevitably be more divisions mainly along ethnic lines by those looking for vindication of their positions and those that feel disappointed. Even if there will be no legal consequences for Croatia, as most Croatian lawyers claimed today would not be possible, the political dynamics in the Balkan conflict have changed. After many years of back and forth, Zagreb is now labeled as an “occupying force” by an international verdict even if that process was not primarily concerned with that aspect and was looking to establish individual responsibility of the defendants. This will make it much harder to promote any future claims for a Croatian entity to be established in Bosnia. It will also dramatically influence war narratives in both Bosnia and Croatia, and very likely even in Serbia.  


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