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8 May 1997

The Tadic verdict: a bad day for justice

Helen Searls, LM's legal adviser, looks at the implications of the Tadic verdict

On 7 May 1997 Dusko Tadic was found guilty of 'crimes against humanity' by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. In delivering their verdict the judges were keen to stress the historic significance of such a judgement. They boasted that this was 'the first determination of individual guilt or innocence in connection with serious violations of international law by an international tribunal. ... The international military tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo were multinational in nature, representing only part of the world community.' This judgement, in contrast, was made on behalf of all of the world community and as such was an historic step for human rights.

In one respect the judges of Trail Chamber II have a point in that the judgement is a turning point. It is not however the great blow for justice and democracy that they would like us to believe it is. Rather the judgement is significant because it codifies what was already implicit in the brief of the Tribunal when it was set up in 1993. Today the West has gained the completely unquestioned right to sit in judgement over the rest of the world. The internationally recognised judgement serves to confirm the West's moral authority around the globe.

In the wake of the judgement there have been criticisms levelled at the War Crimes Tribunal. Martin Bell in his new role as moral spokesman for the British nation was one of the first to criticise the Tribunal for doing too little too late. He complained that only 7 of the 74 named 'war criminals' are in custody and that most of them are minor figures. He urged Western powers with authority over the former Yugoslavia to 'take some extreme political risks' and go after the big fish. Bell's call for a more powerful and interventionist tribunal is echoed in the pages of the Guardian and elsewhere. Others, including an interesting BBC 2 documentary, War Crimes on Trial, have asked some critical questions as to the legal proceedings at The Hague.

All the critics however miss the point. It does not matter that only the small fish are coming to court. Nor is it surprising that the legal procedure within The Hague allows some alleged crimes to go unpunished. In fact it would barely matter if the court failed to convict anyone ever again. The Tribunal has already done a sterling job for the Western establishment in confirming the right of the so-called civilised world (the West) to stand in judgement against the 'uncivilised barbarians' in the East or the South.

Even accepting that there is such a thing as war crime (a term which nobody has criticised since the establishment of the tribunal) lends legitimacy to the notion that war is caused by evil men who are uncivilised and barbaric rather than desperate people who see no alternative but to fight for their survival. What on earth is a war criminal anyway? One look at the Tadic trial indicates it is simply somebody of whom Western authorities disapprove.

Tadic himself was found guilty of crimes against humanity although the court was unable to pin any specific murders on him. All of the more gruesome and widely-publicised evidence against Tadic - including stories of gang rape, mass murder and the forcing of one prisoner to bite off another's testicles - were thrown out due to lack of evidence. Of the 31 charges against Tadic he was found guilty of only eleven. These were charges that centred largely around beatings. He was also charged with persecution.

The labelling of beatings as a crime against humanity is interesting. The incidents that Tadic was found guilty of committing were undoubtedly brutal and violent. However in the middle of a bloody war were they really such an exceptional activity? A candid discussion with British Army soldiers involved in combat with Argentineans would no doubt reveal such events to be far more commonplace than the Tadic judgement implies. It seems as though the definition of a war crime is dependent upon who is committing the alleged crime rather than the actual acts that are carried out.

The charge of persecution is even more revealing. Ploughing through the wordy 300 page judgement it transpires that Tadic was found guilty of persecution because his involvement in the Bosnian war was politically motivated. Because Tadic was in his own words a 'trusted SDS member' who had 'asked to run a crucial plebiscite in the Kozarac area' the trial chamber concluded he had 'knowledge of and supported the plan for a greater Serbia'. The trial judges concluded therefore that Tadic had responsibility for acts performed by others in the name of the greater Serbia in the Prijedor region.

It seems today that membership of a nationalist party of which the West disapproves is now a crime against humanity and a so-called War Crime punishable by life imprisonment by the international courts. Such an ideological construction of crime does nothing for justice or democratic rights. It serves only to strengthen the hand of the apparently civilised nations over the rest of humanity. As the Guardian's and Martin Bell's call for greater Western powers to round up more criminals indicates, the end result of the exercise is not justice but the even greater legitimisation of Western inference across the globe.

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