Vojislav Seselj’s acquittal is a victory for advocates of ethnic cleansing
An international tribunal is creating confusing standards on war crimes and politicians
THROUGHOUT the brutal wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Vojislav Seselj was a leading proponent of ethnic cleansing. An ultra-nationalist backer of a Greater Serbia, who recruited an infamously cruel and thuggish militia to help create it, for the past seven years Mr Seselj has been on trial for war crimes before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. On March 31st, the tribunal found Mr Seselj innocent on all charges. The verdict came one week after the same tribunal convicted Radovan Karadzic, the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, on charges of murder, extermination and genocide. The Seselj verdict has sent shock waves through the Balkans. The judges’ reasoning may have broad ramifications for international justice.
Mr Seselj was born in Bosnia in 1954 and jailed by Yugoslavia’s communist regime in 1984 for his Serbian nationalist ideas. He had a reputation as a brilliant student. As Yugoslavia fell apart, he emerged as an extreme nationalist who advocated a Greater Serbia incorporating most of Bosnia, much of Croatia and all of Macedonia.
For Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader at the time, Mr Seselj was a useful tool. Mr Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party won the votes of those too right-wing to support Mr Milosevic, while often allying itself with him in parliament. But Mr Seselj did much more than engage in politics. His militia were widely feared as drunks, looters and murderers. In the Croatian war in 1991, Mr Seselj said his men had used a rusty spoon to scoop out the eyes of their enemies, though he later claimed this was black humour.
When he and Mr Milosevic fell out in 1993, state television accused Mr Seselj and his men of war crimes against civilians. Mr Seselj has always countered that he had no responsibility for his men’s actions, since they were under the command of the Yugoslav Army or the armies of the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs. The verdict issued by the Yugoslavia war-crimes tribunal accepts this tenuous argument.
Indeed, some of the court’s reasoning seems so far-fetched, particularly to any reporter who was in Croatia and Bosnia at the time, that it defies belief. The judgement argues that Mr Seselj’s men might have been present in contested regions, not to force Bosniak Muslims and Croats out of areas claimed for a Greater Serbia, but on “humanitarian grounds”. His calls for murder, extermination and ethnic cleansing (acted upon by his men) were simply a means of “galvanising Serb forces”.
Predictably, Croatian and Bosniak leaders have reacted angrily to the verdict. Serbia’s leaders are in a difficult position. Tomislav Nikolic, a co-founder of Mr Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party, is now Serbia’s president. Aleksandar Vucic, now Serbia’s prime minister, was a close collaborator of Mr Seselj. They broke with him and formed a new party after he surrendered to the tribunal; Mr Seselj calls them traitors. Serbia is in the midst of an election campaign, and Mr Seselj, who was released from detention in 2014 due to cancer, is leading his old party and campaigning hard for votes.
The verdicts of the tribunal have been erratic. The standards for proof of participating in war crimes seem to vary with each case. Key figures on all sides, convicted of war crimes, have later been released on appeal. Mr Seselj spent 13 years in detention and eight on trial, but only 175 days were spent in court. None of this bodes well for the future of international justice; the shifts in reasoning are confusing for the permanent International Criminal Court established by the United Nations in 2002, which often follows the Yugoslavia tribunal’s precedents.
In the Balkans, the verdict will encourage nationalist Serbs to argue that their side did nothing wrong in the war. Such arguments will be matched by mirror-image claims from nationalist Croats, Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians. In the words of Eric Gordy, a sociologist and expert on war crimes in the Balkans, the Seselj verdict is “a great victory for bloated, violent lunatics everywhere.”