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BiH divided over new War Crimes Chamber

A nationwide poll shows that BiH is skeptical that a new War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo will do much to promote forgiveness among Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.
Photo: CIN

Hajra Ćatić expresses no satisfaction over the March opening of a local War Crimes Chamber at the State Court of BiH. While the international community and local authorities saw it as a big step toward bringing the country’s ethnic groups to terms with the past, trials and sentences are not important now to the 60- year-old Srebrenica woman.

It is too soon for Ćatić to think about reconciliation, even though this July will mark 10 years since the slaughter of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Serb soldiers in Srebrenica.

She just wants to find the bodies of her murdered husband and son. Ćatić is not alone in her ambivalence about the decision to move responsibility for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of war crimes cases from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague to the BiH courts.

A new nationwide poll shows that BiH citizens are deeply divided over the 12 years of Hague trials, and equally skeptical of the potential for the BiH War Crimes Chamber to do any better at promoting forgiveness among ethnic groups.

Half of the BiH public continues to believe that international judges and prosecutors in the new Chamber can guarantee justice even in a war crimes process that most also feel has been agonizingly drawn out.

The poll is part of an investigation by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CIN) in Sarajevo into the efforts toward reconciliation and lasting peace in BiH, of which the new Chamber has become a critical part. The 11-part series will try to explain the state of reconciliation to the 72 percent of the public the poll found largely unaware of the Chamber’s establishment .

The center’s team of journalists found that there will be many challenges to the credibility of what some have called BiH’s “mini-Hague,” even before the first case from the ICTY is heard this fall. The difficulties facing the new court may have even brought back the idea of a “truth and reconciliation” commission. The idea for setting up this commission originated five years ago but from the very beginning it was not met with acceptance. The Hague court was thought sufficient to establish the truth about the past events.

The new Chamber will be trying to convince Ćatić, and the thousands of others traumatized on all sides of the war, that the repetition of history can be interrupted by reconciliation.

The CIN poll, conducted in March by PRISM Research, chose 500 adults in both entities on the basis of randomly selected telephone numbers. The poll was done by phone and has a margin of error of 5 percent.

In the face of the widespread ignorance and pessimism about the court that the poll exposed, the faith placed in international involvement is striking. The poll showed that BiH citizens are widely dissatisfied with the pace of the proceedings against suspects at the ICTY. As many as 61 percent said the tribunal has been too slow to prosecute suspects, while 28 percent were content with the pace of the trials.

Despite the ICTY’s reputation for slow justice, an almost equal number of respondents continue to put their faith in international officials. When asked, “Do you believe the presence of international judges and prosecutors will help make the process more or less fair and balanced?” 52 percent of the respondents in the poll responded favorably.

This attitude reflects the general trust BiH residents have shown toward the work of international officials since the Dayton Accords ended the war in 1995. Even though Bosniaks’ faith in many international institutions has been falling, it has been offset by increases from Croat and Serb communities, according to a quarterly poll by the United Nations Development Program. As recently as February, the generally positive opinion of all three ethnic groups toward international organizations hovered around 50 percent as it has for the last several quarters, a UNDP report on the poll said.

But Branislav Dukić of Banja Luka, a former POW, found it insulting that the international community feels it must intrude on the administration of justice in BiH.

“As if our judges and prosecutors were shepherds who had no knowledge of their job, so that they needed them international folks,” he said bitterly. Mirko Zelenika, his Croat counterpart from the Association of POWs of the Homeland War, defended the involvement of foreigners.

‘It is good that they are all here,” he said. ‘Because our judges and prosecutors are still under some political influence as much as they might think themselves impartial.”

The CIN/PRISM poll indicates that the public is also almost equally divided on the ability of a War Crimes Chamber in the State Court of BiH to help the three ethnic groups “forgive” one another. Of those surveyed, 46 percent believe that the court trials will contribute at least somewhat to forgiveness while an equal number believe they will not.

Pollsters said the responses they got reflected the ethnic bias of respondents. Serbs and RS residents, for example, were more pessimistic about the possibility of reconciliation, and less likely to be aware of the War Crimes Chamber.

The split in the public’s attitude toward the Chamber continued when questioned on whether or not the court would provide “fair and balanced” trials for all ethnic groups. Forty-eight percent believe it could. But pollsters pointed to the large number, nearly a third of respondents (30.6 percent), who said that they did not believe this at all.

The same vehemence can be found with many of the outspoken victims, who fear a War Crimes Chamber which will be mixed-up with the same politics and personalities that caused the war.

Ćatić, the Srebrenica mother, and President of the Association of Women of Srebrenica and Zepa, has no confidence in the new Chamber.

She said she worries about the politics and the ethnic prejudices of judges and prosecutors. Ćatić lost her 26-year-old son, Nihad, and her husband, Junuz, in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

“Imagine having a Serb suspect and a Serb judge,” she said. “There’s no talk about a fair trial in such cases and vice versa.”

But Branislav Dukić, the former POW and the president of the RS Association of POWs, has high hopes for the Chamber.

“We have fought one another here; let us be prosecuted here too’ he said. For that to happen it will be critical that persons on all sides who have committed war crimes be prosecuted, Dukić added. A delegation of the POW Association has visited Meddžida Kreso, the president of The State Court of BiH, to emphasize this point.

“We are pleased, because she told us that everyone will be prosecuted and only based on the evidence” Dukić said. He is not afraid of ethnic bias on the part of judges and prosecutors. According to Dukić, it is more important that they be competent professionals without war time pasts.

But aside from victims’ groups, most of the BiH public has little information on which to judge the new Chamber’s chances to aid reconciliation.

PRISM pollsters said that the 72 percent of the public claiming ignorance of the new court was not surprising and a fairly typical result for a new institution that has not even begun its central task of holding trials. It does show, however, how much work remains for officials hoping to persuade citizens that the Chamber is a credible method for settling the past.

Sociology professor Slavo Kukić of the University of Mostar, said few citizens know about the court because many do not read newspapers or watch televised news bulletins.

“So far all eyes have been focused on the Hague,” he said, ‘but that must change.’

‘It is very important for this BiH court that the citizens should be familiar with the first verdicts to be reached because those would lay a foundation for the court’s credibility,” he said.

Adnan Hasanbegović, an activist with the non-profit Center for Non-Violent Action in Sarajevo, said he considers making citizens aware of war crimes trials vitally important to the future.

The center organizes workshops at which former soldiers and ex-adversaries talk about the war and their roles in it.

Hasanbegović said the main goal of the court should be to assert itself as an authority delivering justice. It cannot, he said, be seen as part of a conspiracy focused against any one of the ethnic groups in BiH.

“I would like the citizens to see the court as something that will bring justice to them,” said Hasanbegović.

But historian Bruce Hitchner at the University of Dayton said that war crimes trials cannot be the sole mechanism for developing mutual reconciliation and forgiveness.

“The court is not a way to tell the whole truth about the past events in BiH,” said Hitchner, a Balkan specialist.

He said court proceedings can help to establish the truth about individuals, but it cannot help to lay out the complete record about horrors and crimes that happened to and were caused by an entire society. That full truth, he said, is a requirement for real reconciliation. The Srebrenica survivors know what he means.

Ćatić wants to know exactly who killed her family and is unwilling to forgive anyone.

”Everybody could have done something, and those who were not committing atrocities stood still watching them unfold,” she said. For the rest of her life she will feel distant from Serbs, she added.

Still, sociology professor Bećir Macić from the Institute for International Law and Crimes against Humanity in Sarajevo thinks that investigating crimes, identifying criminals and prosecuting them are also important to healing the wounds of a war like Bosnia’s.

“Without truth,” he said, “there is no prerequisite for the proceedings of war crimes, and by the same token there is no reconciliation.” He said it is extremely difficult to speak about the truth when it is still unknown even how many people died in BiH from 1992 through 1995.

However, 12 years of war crimes prosecutions at the ICTY in The Hague have done little to bring about reconciliation, according to half the respondents in the poll.

A total of 50 percent of the respondents said they did not think hearings before the international court have contributed to better relations among the warring parties. By June, the ICTY had indicted 162 people and convicted 35. Nine died before they came to trial and five died before their trials could be finished.

Only 13 percent of poll respondents believed that the ICTY trials have significantly added to the return of lost confidence.

Dukić from the RS Association of POWs complained that the ICTY in the beginning was exclusively a political court that prosecuted fellow Serbs only. That, Dukić said, could not help toward reconciliation in the BiH. According to Matias Helman, a representative of the Hague in BiH, each defendant is treated as an individual, and therefore the tribunal is not collecting statistics on the ethnicity of those who have been sentenced before the body.

However, a review by CIN of the ICTY’s list of convictions shows that of 18 convicts serving sentences in European prisons, 14 are Serbs, 2 are Croats and 2 Bosniaks.

“If a similar thing were to happen with The State Court of BiH — if it starts prosecuting only Serbs just like the Hague in its beginning, this will not help reconciliation, just as the Hague didn’t” said Dukić.

The Srebrenica victims have many objections to the Hague proceedings. In addition to how slowly people are being brought to justice, the tribunal is dealing too leniently with the guilty, the group said.

The former POW from the RS POW association said they see things at the Hague improving.

‘Nowadays both the Bosniaks and the Croats are going to the Hague which is a good thing,” Dukić said. Slowly but surely all those who have committed crimes are being brought to justice, he said. “It is the outcome that matters, not the duration.”

Similar to the CIN/PRISM poll of Bosnians, citizens of defeated Germany were surveyed following the Second World War about their feelings toward the first international court of war crimes in Nuremburg, which prosecuted the former military and political leadership of Nazi Germany.

Immediately after the war the American Office of Military Government found that nearly 93 percent of the population knew about the trials and only about 4 percent felt they were unfair. The percentage of those who said they had learned about the mass murder of Jews went up from 65 to 87 percent during the trials.

Several years later acceptance of the trials started to change, according to polls the U.S. High Commission for Germany and eventually German groups continued up through 1992.

The percentage of those who felt the trial was unfair rose to 30 percent by 1950 and by mid-1952 59 percent of the West German population voiced disapproval in the polls of how the western powers had handled the problem of war criminals.


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