Today, Generals Gotovina and Markac will leave their UN gaol free men, their innocence proven, their earlier convictions quashed. However, this vindication has been a long time coming. While the ICTY decision also exonerates the late President Tudjman and the entire Croatian nation, it is too little too late.
Both generals have spent years of their prime in gaol for crimes the ICTY recognised from the outset had been committed by others, crimes for which the real perpetrators will probably never be found because of the the ICTY’s perverse obsession with an imagined Croatian conspiracy. They have endured defamation, not only of their own characters but also of their homeland and its legitimate defence of its national sovereignty. They have suffered the ignominy of being labelled war criminals when in fact they are war heroes, men whose valorous military leadership saved not only Croats but also tens of thousands of Bosniaks from the butchery of bloodthirsty Serbs like Ratko Mladic. And the Croatian nation, whose people once so fervently sang “Europe you can stop the war”, has lost its faith in the European dream. The childlike trust of Europe’s newest star was shattered when these good men were convicted in 2011. Today’s decision reversing that conviction can only partly heal the deep wound of betrayal.
Without in any way diminishing the courage and rectitude of the judges of the Appeals Chamber in finally administering justice, it must be said that if justice had prevailed in the first place the generals would never have been indicted, there would have been no trial, and Croatia’s reputation would have remained unblemished. This court decision can only partially rectify a situation in which the world has been given the impression that all parties in the 1990s conflict were morally equivalent. The damage has been done and continues to be exacerbated by the failure to recognise that Croatia was the victim of a brutally aggressive war waged by Serbia/Yugoslavia. If the UN had adhered to its principles at the outset of the war, we would have seen the UN itself conduct a military operation like Storm in defence of the innocent instead of waiting for Croatia to do what they lacked the courage of conviction to do themselves. And if only one person could be given credit for breaking the Serbs’ murderous stranglehold on Bosnia and forcing them to the negotiating table that person is General Ante Gotovina.
So, as we rejoice in the long-awaited freedom of two men to whom we owe so very much, let us also remember those who continue to suffer injustice. I urge you to especially remember the people of Bosnia who tolerate the legacy of an insultingly outrageous division of their country, who witnessed the international community reward instead of punish the architects of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and concentration camps, and who still clamour for justice alongside their Croatian brethren. And I commend to you the people of Israel, who this very day must put up with unwarranted international criticism for defending themselves against incessant terrorist rocket attacks, in a situation not unlike that faced by Croatia when occupied from 1991 to 1995.
One battle for truth has been won, but we continue to be surrounded by lies and propaganda. For many, this verdict will change nothing, and they will continue to vilify Croatia and its people. Now is not the time to rest on our laurels. Now is the time to reinforce Croatia’s hard-won independence with more of the truth. As tempting as it may be to ‘move on’ and shut out the horrors of the war, we must never forget. As William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”