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Less than a month has passed since the acquittal of Generals Gotovina and Markac at the ICTY, and I am forced to conclude that (despite the courageous decision of Judges Meron, Robinson, and Güney to uphold judicial integrity despite considerable political pressure), very little has changed in the general perception of Croatia and its people.  Already we have been treated to dozens of news articles displaying the shoddiest of journalism and a complete disregard for research, reliability of sources, context, or balance.  The analysis of the court decision has turned out to be negligibly more coherent and certainly not trustworthy (with a few exceptions).  However, both have exposed the insidious propaganda that has been blindly accepted and dispersed by the majority.

I have been fascinated to read the constant refrain that the verdict will further harm relations between Croatia and Serbia and the process of reconciliation.  As true as this may be, should two innocent men have been condemned simply to appease the Serbs?  Is this what international justice is really about – further appeasement of the aggressor, almost two decades after the end of the war when the Serbs were rewarded for their murderous rampage across the region with half of Bosnia?  Does international justice mean sacrificing the truth about the guilt or innocence of individuals in order to placate those who would rather wreak revenge on a scapegoat than discover the real perpetrators?

In all this, there has been a dangerous underlying assumption, a wholly incorrect supposition that predisposes us to presume guilt instead of innocence.  That assumption is that Croatia’s sovereignty is in some way lacking in legitimacy, that the war of 1991-1995 was a civil war in which the rebels were the Croats, Bosnians and Slovenes.  This has been reflected in the persistent claims that the Serbs were the predominant victims in the conflict (which is about as rational as suggesting the Germans were victims of World War II) and totally ignores the political reality of what was Yugoslavia.

The first thing I want to clarify is that the borders the Republic of Croatia claimed when it seceded from the federation of Yugoslavia in 1991 were no different to the borders it had under the 1946 constitution of Yugoslavia.  (The same can be said of Slovenia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.)  Furthermore, the Krajina region which was occupied by rebel Serbs with the support of Serbian troops during 1991-1995 has always been part of Croatia.  From the sixteenth century to 1882 it formed the Habsburg-ruled Croatian Military Frontier, and from 1882 it was part of the Kingdom of Croatia.  The Krajina has never been part of Serbia, and the fact that there is an entire country (Bosnia) between the Krajina region of Croatia and Serbia should help anyone ignorant of this history to understand how very unambiguous this is (or at least should be).

The second point to be made is that when the Socialist Republic of Croatia (which was one of the six constituent republics of Yugoslavia) democratically and legally seceded from federal Yugoslavia, it was attacked from outside of its borders by Serbia (a.k.a. rump Yugoslavia).  Likewise, the multi-ethnic Bosnians were attacked by Serbs and Serbians when they attempted the same legitimate political action.  I can personally testify that when I worked in the so-called Serb Republic of the Krajina in 1993 that Serbian troops were actively engaged in missions in Bosnia and Croatia.  Both Croatia and Bosnia were invaded by an aggressive enemy bent on expanding the historical borders of Serbia across two additional countries.  While locals inevitably were involved when fighting came to their area, neither Croatia nor Bosnia were involved in a civil war; they were fighting to defend their national sovereignty.

Nevertheless, two decades later, there is still widespread ignorance on this matter.  And the mainstream media contributes to this blurring of right and wrong by encouraging constant and blatant errors of logic.  People leaving a region does not equal ethnic cleansing, and yet those who should know better, such as David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, take it for granted that ethnic cleansing took place.  (It should probably be noted that this is the same David Harland who has admitted responsibility under cross examination for the myth that UNPROFOR was unable to establish that the Serbs were responsible for the Markale 2 Marketplace massacre in Sarajevo.)  He recently wrote in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune: “If the acquitted generals were not responsible for this ethnic cleansing, then somebody was, somebody who will presumably go free.”   As I have pointed out in greater detail in a previous article, the subjective experience of fear does not prove the intent of an objective action by another party.  Furthermore, when people choose and are not forced to leave a region, that is not ethnic cleansing.  The Serbs who left the Krajina in 1995 were directed to do so by their own leaders prior to the arrival of Croatian troops, and what crimes did take place were (going by the testimony of Serb witnesses at the Gotovina et al. trial) in the chaos following Operation Storm when the Croatian Army was in Bosnia.

Even the dissenting judges of the Appeals Chamber have fallen into the trap of equating outcome with intent, bemoaning that the acquittal of Generals Gotovina and Markac “contradicts any sense of justice”.  But, as Marko Attila Hoare has perceptively pointed out, the lack of justice for the victims is not the fault of the Appeals Chamber.  While “the ICTY has failed them”, the “failure should be attributed… to the prosecution’s flawed indictment”.  When the innocent are indicted, then justice demands an acquittal, however inadequate that may be for the victims.  Condemning the innocent does not deliver justice for victims, even if it does satiate the demands of their kith and kin for blood, and if anything it makes a mockery of the victims, suggesting that the wrong done to them can be dismissed by more wrongdoing, making them pawns in a game of tit for tat instead of human beings with legitimate grievances needing rectification.

Of course, there are many who assume Operation Storm was by definition a case of ethnic cleansing, and it is no wonder when all manner of misinformation predominates about the Gotovina et al. case.  After all, the average person is more likely to have access to David Harland in the New York Times or a basic news service that claims “Operation Storm represents one of the most severe cases of ethnic cleansing that was conducted in the wars in the territories of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY)” than the more accurate analysis of the Royal United Services Institute which notes that the “original judgement conceded” that “Operation Storm as a whole was not an illegitimate campaign”.

Notably, Serbian First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic recently tried to convince the UN Security Council that Operation Storm was “an indiscriminate attack”.  He concluded that because the ICTY had failed to punish anyone for crimes against Serbs that “the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac [was] shameful”.  Once again, we see the mentality that demands punishment (of a scapegoat if necessary) rather than (our often flawed attempts at) justice.  Vucic’s attempt to characterise Operation Storm as a crime in utter defiance of the ICTY’s verdict to the contrary (in both the original trial judgement and the final appeal) is a ploy often seen at the UN, a ploy to turn the tables and portray the aggressor as victim.  Just as Palestinian terrorists fire rockets at Israel day after day then complain vociferously to the UN when Israel responds in its defence, so too Vucic has neglected to mention that Operation Storm was a defensive response to four years of indiscriminate shelling of urban areas of the Dalmatian coast, that it was conducted in a highly professional manner over the course of three days (unlike the Serb attacks on Croatia and Bosnia starting in 1991), and that at the time Serb forces (in conjunction with Serbian forces) occupied one-third of Croatia and had done so for four years.

Law professors, it seems, aren’t immune either.  Milena Sterio from Cleveland State University has made fundamental errors in her scrutiny of the case.  (I am, of course, assuming that these are unwitting mistakes and that Prof. Sterio, as a Serb lawyer-academic, would never deliberately misrepresent the facts.)   Notably, in her article at the IntLawGrrls blog, she states “Gotovina and Markač had been accused of participating in a joint criminal enterprise, alongside the Croatian political leadership, to ethnically cleanse Croatia, and in particular, the Krajina region, of the Serbian [sic] population that had lived there for centuries.”  This is a favourite mantra of the Serbs – that they’ve lived there for centuries –  and it’s not something I dispute, but I will point out that having lived in Croatia for centuries makes them Croatian Serbs, not Serbian.  And this is the crux of the issue.  There are more Greeks in Melbourne than Athens but that does not mean that Greece has claim to a quarter of Melbourne or that Melbourne should be incorporated into a ‘Greater Greece’.  The Serbs of the Krajina claim they haven’t lived in Serbia for centuries, which makes them Croatian.  They cannot have it two ways – either they are Croatian Serbs, with allegiance to Croatia and a right to live in the Croatian region of the Krajina, or they are Serbian Serbs, in which case they were part of an occupying force that Croatia had every right to expel.  Professor Sterio’s comments betray an inability to accept Croatian sovereignty over the Krajina and a confusion of Serb (ethnicity) and Serbian (citizenship).  The Krajina Serbs are not Serbian, but Croatian, and (as I’ve pointed out above) there is nothing discriminatory about Croatian sovereignty over the Krajina which is historically and geographically very distinct from Serbia.

Interestingly, General Gotovina has himself publicly supported the return of Croatian Serbs to the Krajina.  He, like most Croatians, knows his history, that the Krajina Serbs have indeed lived there for centuries and are therefore Croatian, and also that there were approximately ten thousand Croatian Serbs who fought in the Croatian Army in defence of Croatian sovereignty.  It is seldom mentioned that the ethnic Serb population at the time was represented not only by a minimum of eleven Serb representatives in the Croatian parliament but also by the Serb People’s Party which opposed the Serbian attempt to create a Greater Serbia by annexing swathes of Bosnia and Croatia.  So, in reality, if anyone in Croatia should be accused of ethnic cleansing it is those Serbs who decided they could not live under Croatian sovereignty, who by their actions declared that (unlike tens of thousands of loyal Croatian Serbs) they could not live side by side with non-Serb Croatians and would rather retreat to a country they hadn’t lived in for centuries.  Croatia, despite being at war, had guaranteed the legal and political rights of its ethnic minorities, but a vast number of Serbs supported the ethnic cleansing entailed in Serbia’s war for a Greater Serbia, and when Croatia announced its plan to defend itself from this abominable policy of ethnic purity via Operation Storm they chose to leave.

Professor Sterio also states that the “Appeals Chamber concluded that the Serbian [sic] population left willingly, not because of any forceful military action exercised by the Croatian army.”  She then goes on to say that the “Appeals Chamber disregarded evidence, set forth by the Trial Chamber, that Croatian leadership resettled the Serb-deserted Krajina region by ethnic Croats, and that after the Serbs fled, Croatia adopted discriminatory property laws which made it increasingly difficult for Serbs to own property in Croatia.”  Assuming for the sake of argument that this is true, it nevertheless has absolutely no bearing on Operation Storm or the guilt or innocence of its military leaders.  The Appeals Chamber quite rightly made a distinction between the actions of Generals Gotovina and Markac and the political events that took place afterwards.  It is absurd for Sterio to suggest that events that took place after the willing departure of the population can render their choice invalid.  The willingness of a person at a certain time cannot be changed in hindsight.  To do so, to say that one was forced when one wasn’t, is lying.  It is furthermore wholly irrational of Sterio to suggest that two military leaders were in any way responsible for subsequent property legislation or the resettlement of internally displaced persons.

However, the stance Professor Sterio is perhaps best illustrated by her conclusion:  “Finally, this appellate decision will further reinforce the Serbian belief that international justice is not blind and apolitical, and may dissuade Serbian political leaders from cooperating with authorities at The Hague. While most Serbs did not care about the individual pronouncement of culpability against Gotovina and Markač, they did and do care about the global pronouncement of responsibility against the Croatian leadership for crimes committed against ethnic Serbs in Krajina.”  And there you have it!  The verdict in a trial that has the primary aim of establishing the guilt or innocence of two individuals has an effect on a “Serbian belief” and “may dissuade” Serbian political leaders from doing the right thing.   Apparently, we are to decry the operation of justice and abandon truth and the process of law in order to pander to Serbian propaganda.  Furthermore, according to Prof. Sterio, most Serbs don’t care about whether the generals are culpable or not, but they do expect them to be found guilty regardless.  So much for justice!

This cult of Serb victimhood has created problems additional to Operation Storm and the Gotovina et al. case.   Last year, Croatian citizen Veljko Maric was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment by a Serbian court in a case riddled with impropriety.  (Even the Serbian Humanitarian Law Center has stated that Maric should not have been tried in Serbia.)  Maric’s innocence or guilt aside – and I for one am inclined to presume innocence until he is given a fair trial – Serbia does not have jurisdiction over an alleged crime that took place on Croatian soil.  Maric should have been extradited to Croatia, as requested by the Croatian government.  The fact that there has not been international outrage over this, and that this has not been cited as an impediment to Serbia’s EU membership, is another glaring instance of the international community pandering to the aggressor.  The only justification for Maric to be tried in Serbia would be if the alleged crime took place on Serbian soil, and anyone who upholds the jurisdiction of the Serbian court in this case gives tacit approval to the notion of Greater Serbia.

Indeed, the only way that any of these arguments in favour of Serb victimhood work is if one subscribes (consciously or subconsciously) to a Greater Serbia and the ethnic cleansing and genocide that was used in furtherance of this abhorrent doctrine.  And the irony of this, an irony that should not give anyone who cares for justice any pleasure, is that murderers of Croatian Serbs now walk free.  Of course there were crimes committed in Croatia in the wake of Operation Storm – every country has its fair share of criminals and I imagine that the chaos of war encourages rather than discourages crime – but the Serb obsession with blaming the Croatian leadership and the Croatian people as a whole has served to obscure these crimes instead of assisting the authorities to track down the perpetrators.  This is a travesty, all the more because those with the most interest in discovering the real perpetrators are the ones standing in the way of truth and justice.  While Croatia and its generals are hounded for crimes they did not commit, the real perpetrators cannot be identified.

The choice for those of us who discuss these matters is clear: we can either commit ourselves to the truth and seek justice or we can let the propaganda go unchallenged and allow innocent people to be punished as scapegoats.  It is up to us to speak up and set the record straight.  Silence means consent.

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