Comment on Tim Judah's "The Fog of Justice"

By Peter Lippman

January 2004


Editor, New York Review of Books:


Tim Judah’s article on the Hague proceedings and their effect on politics in former Yugoslavia (The Fog of Justice, January 15, 2004) brought up important questions concerning the possibility of reconciliation. Clearly the post-war situation is a maddening dilemma, and Mr. Judah has uncovered unpleasant truths. It is true that the Hague tribunal is politicized, as the article suggests. While I support the court’s work, I doubt that a tribunal like this would exist if, for example, it were to investigate alleged American war crimes in Afghanistan or Iraq. If the U.S. government really cared to promote justice in a disinterested manner, it would have signed on to the International Criminal Court long ago.

At the same time, Mr. Judah (whose work I respect) overlooks other important factors, especially economic pressures, that are holding back reconciliation and impeding the achievement of justice in the region. In Bosnia, for example, that there are fewer and fewer jobs, which seriously impedes the return of displaced persons to their pre-war homes. It is also significant that "ethnic privatization" -- whose beneficiaries are most often war-time profiteers who have now become capitalist entrepreneurs -- is eagerly supported by the international community, and this is something that alienates ordinary people on all sides. These ordinary people are abused and angry, but as long as they have leaders who are capable of manipulating their fear of members of the other ethnicities, and setting them off against each other, nothing will change. These conditions exist in all of the republics of the former Yugoslavia where ethnic animosities have existed.


Mr. Judah’s article contains some unfortunate inaccuracies, especially his assertion that almost a million Bosnian refugees have gone “home.” Hundreds of thousands of refugees returned to Bosnia in the post-war years, but the number of those who were able to return to their pre-war homes is closer to 430,000.These people are now "minority returnees." The rest have resettled in places where they are in the ethnic majority. This fills out Mr. Judah's return figure but conceals the tragic story of what is essentially Bosnia's partition. For UNHCR maps and tables on refugee and displaced-persons return, click here.

Kozarac, where I have spent considerable time, is not "deep inside the Republika Srpska," as Mr. Judah writes, and there are crucial factors that have influenced refugee return to that locality besides the activity of the war crimes tribunal. One such factor is the very proximity of Kozarac to the Muslim-Croat entity. After the war, displaced citizens of Kozarac were centered around Sanski Most, only 40 minutes from their home. Thus they were easily able to make preliminary visits to Kozarac in preparation for return. Another factor was that there were exceptionally capable and determined leaders in the return movement, assisted by of international NGOs that helped people rebuild their houses.


Mr. Judah cites Bosniaks' assertion that far fewer Muslims would have returned to Kozarac if it weren't for the Hague tribunal. Certainly this affected their eventual numbers, but during the critical early period of return to Kozarac, in 1998-99, the war crimes tribunal had barely gotten underway, and only one war criminal, Dusko Tadic, had been apprehended. (For more background on the story of Kozarac, see my writings on refugee return to northwestern Bosnia.)

It is also a bit misleading to say that the ethnic strife that took place in Bosnia during World War II is the reason Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991- 92. Certainly it is true that wounds not healed by the application of justice and reconciliation will return to fester again. But at the same time, the history of Yugoslavia and its predecessors has primarily been one of tolerance, contrary to simplistic appraisals by mainstream commentators. The factors that set off the war of Yugoslav dissolution had more to do with poor economic policies under Tito, which led to runaway inflation after his death, and subsequent demagogic manipulation by the likes of Slobodan Milosevic.


Mr. Judah quotes foreign minister Goran Svilanovic as saying that "there was no genocide." It is disappointing to hear this denial from Svilanovic, who is very popular among Serbian liberals. Serbia, as much as any other part of former Yugoslavia, must examine its past honestly, and Svilanovic, once one of the brightest and most promising of Serbia's opposition leaders, could do much better. Indeed, only by facing up to its history can Serbia ensure peace and reconciliation in the region.


Peter Lippman


The writer is an independent human rights activist and researcher who has spent half of the past six years in Bosnia.

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