Was the ICTY version of the Balkan conflicts an accurate one?

Was the ICTY’s version of what happened in Yugoslavia a true and faithful account?

The ICTY began its work on the presumption that many war crimes had been committed in the course of the Yugoslav conflicts that took place between 1992-2000.  It seems that it also believed the overwhelming majority of these crimes had been committed by Serbs.  The basis for these beliefs was apparently nothing more than the coverage of the conflicts in Western media.

Little progress was made during the first year of the ICTY’s operation.  Its first Chief Prosecutor was not in place for almost a year and the team of launch staff spent much of their time working on the practical arrangements for the court.  The much-expected indictments of suspected war criminals took much longer:  it was reported that ICTY investigators were having difficulty finding the necessary evidence.  

A major problem was that early investigations of some of the most notorious claims about the conflicts did not check out.  Perhaps the most spectacular example was the list of mass grave sites around Srebrenica compiled by the USA.  Claims that these sites each contained thousands of bodies were dashed when the first mass gave excavations, carried out in 1996 by the US organisation Physicians for Human Rights, revealed fewer than 500 bodies from a total of 20 alleged mass graves.

Nevertheless, the ICTY began to issue indictments in 1995.  Amongst them were the indictments of Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Army.  This was issued a few weeks before the beginning of the Dayton conference.  As US diplomat Richard Holbrook made clear, the overriding purpose of these indictments, for which no evicdence had yet been gathered, was to prevent Karadzic and Mladic from attending the conference.  Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was indicted in 1999 to prevent him from attending the Rambouillet conference.  7 years later, when Milosevic died in prison at the Hague,  4 years into his trial for genocide and other crimes, the ICTY was still desperately looking for evidence to support the charges made against him.

In November 1996, the British Sunday Times carried an article by Jon Swain asking what had happened to the bodies of the 7,000 or more people who had allegedly been massacred by Bosnian Serbs after Srebrenica fell to the Serbs in July 1995.  Swain suggested that the most likely explanation was that there had been a massive cover-up by the Serbs.

Even before the Swain article appeared, President Bill Clinton had announced that mass grave investigations in Bosnia would be taken over by an organisation called the International Commission for Missing Persons.  Although this had an independent supervisory board, always chaired by an American, and was more than 90% staffed by Bosnian Muslims, the President decreed this to be a properly impartial body to recover Srebrenica bodies and later to take charge of the identification processes.

The ICTY’s own investigations team was very small.  It is believed that they took most of their information from US intelligence and other intelligence services.  This information seems to have been the basis of the new version of what happened at Srebrenica that began to emerge from 1997 onwards.  This was that massacres had originally taken place in the area close to Srebrenica town and the bodies had been buried in the sites originally identified. The Bosnian Serbs had then, between August and September, returned to these graves to dig up the bodies and remove them to new “secondary” graves where, presumably, they hoped they would not be discovered.  

This new theory always seemed absurd.  Madeleine Albright had issued a stark warning to the Serbs at the UN on 10 August 1995 that the US “will be watching” for any sign of interference with the mass graves.  With many US, NATO and US staff on the ground, not to mention satellite cameras and drones, the chances that anything of this kind could have gone undetected seemed to be nil.  This was confirmed in 1996 when numerous Americans and others told journalists in interviews that they had seen no indication of tampering.  There were also strong doubts that the Serbs could have excavated some 500 tons of human remains, transported them by lorry to a range of sites, some many miles away in mountainous country, without anyone detecting that this had happened.  Another contra indication was that the Bosnian Serb Army was well known to have been in dire straits at the time, exhausted by the need to police a front line extending for many hundreds of miles and desperately short of fuel and supplies. It was also under continuous NATO bombing.

As Susan Woodward of the Brooking Institute pointed out, it is very clear that conflicts were the direct and almost immediate result of a provision Senator Bob Dole tagged on to a bill passing through Congress in November 1990 which made all future US aid to Yugoslavia conditional upon the holding of elections in all the Yugoslav republics.  Not only did these elections, when they eventually happened, hugely empower the nationalists in all the Republics; , in combination with punitive economic sanctions imposed by the western powers, they also completely stalled the Yugoslav economy.  Industry ground to a halt, inflation soared to levels far exceeding the worst days of the Weimar Republic and bitter recriminations broke out on all sides.  The first fighting was in Slovenia which had closed its erected frontiers with the other republics and declared its independence.  Close following came Croatia, which – having already removed the human rights of all Serbs living in the republic – blockaded units of the Yugoslav army in their Croatian barracks.  In Bosnia the first moments of conflict followed the shooting by a Bosnian Muslim of a Serbian man attending a Serbian wedding.  Like so many conflicts in history, the Balkan conflicts started messily and incoherently.  But there was no sign of any overarching plan for supremacy on the part of the Serbs.   

Perhaps the clearest indication of the fragility of the ICTY’s version of events emerged from the Milosevic trial. The lead prosecutor, Geoffrey Nice, had spent many months of court time trying to establish that all the conflicts in the Balkan wars had been triggered by a secret “Greater Serbia” policy pursued by Milosevic. This theory had been put forward in an acclaimed BBC television series, “The Death of Yugoslavia”, which Geoffrey Nice showed in court on several occasions during the trial.  Originally this allegation rested principally on a “Greater Serbia” document obtained by the prosecution: this was soon conclusively proved to be a fake by the discovery of  numerous Croatian spellings in what purported to be a strongly Serbian-nationalist text.  Nice then attempted unsuccessfully to use a selection of witnesses to implicate Milosevic in a Greater Serbia conspiracy, but one by one the witnesses failed to do so.  This was hardly surprising for those who had looked at the matter in any detail:  as the translation of Milosevic’s speech in Kosovo in June 1998 makes clear, Milosevic alone among the Yugoslav leaders was fervently committed to multi-racialism in a united Yugloslavia.  In a BBC television Storyville documentary in 2007, Nice was interviewed at length about Greater Serbia.  He finally admitted that he had no proof that Milosevic had ever so much as used the words “Greater Serbia”.