Croatian public opinion has been left reeling after the convictions, on 15 April, of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, two Croat Generals who, at the height of the Balkan wars in August 1995, won a dramatic victory over Serb forces in the Krajina region, thereby securing the Croatian independence. Popular protest (pictured left) against the convictions is even threatening to destabilise Croatia’s moves towards EU membership (the Croatian Government’s help in tracking down the former generals was a condition of starting the accession process and the controversy over the convictions has spilled over into antipathy towards the EU). As Ian Traynor reported in the Guardian
‘The result represents a disaster for Croatia and a triumphant vindication for Serbia. The Croats have been told that the decisive victory of the war, sealing their independent statehood, was a war crime.’
But, as the members of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) might conclude, fiat justitia ruat caelum (“let justice be done though the heavens fall”). The short-term consequences of the conviction have to be set against its value as a marker that the standards of international criminal law are administered fairly and free from the familiar taint that it amounts to “victors’ justice”. In a judgment running to two volumes and well over a thousand pages Gotovina and Markač ‘were convicted of persecution, deportation, plunder, wanton destruction, two counts of murder, inhumane acts and cruel treatment’ in the course of the Krajina offensive and sentenced to 24 and 18 years’ imprisonment respectively.
The Gotovina case is so controversial as it strikes at Croatia’s “foundation myth”. Although the Court was careful to assert that the decision did not strike at the ‘lawfulness of resorting to and conducting war as such’ and was instead concerned with ‘whether Serb civilians in the Krajina were the targets of crimes and whether the Accused should be held criminally liable for these crimes’, its judgement amounted to a damning indictment of the conduct of the government and military under Croatian President Franjo Tuđman (who died in December 1999). The ICTY’s Trial Chamber found that the Croatian political and military leadership:
[S]hared the common objective of the permanent removal of the Serb civilian population from the Krajina by force or threat of force, which amounted to and involved persecution (deportation, forcible transfer, unlawful attacks against civilians and civilian objects, and discriminatory and restrictive measures), deportation, and forcible transfer.
The Trial Chamber concluded that Gotovina ‘used the Croatian military forces and the Special Police to commit the crimes within the objective of the joint criminal enterprise’. Such a damning indictment of the conduct of men that many Croats continue to regard as heroes unsurprisingly came as a shock in Croatia. Even the Current Prime minister asserted that:
‘Having learned that [the tribunal] has found that the Croatian state leadership acted in a joint criminal enterprise, I must declare that to the government of Croatia this is unacceptable … Our view of the operation is absolutely clear: it was a legitimate military and police action to liberate Croatian state territory from occupation’.
Nonetheless, such short-term frustrations at having to confront the legacy of a bitter period in national history will subside. In the long-term, the decision, taken as the work of the ICTY draws to a close, will undoubtedly help to bolster the legitimacy of international criminal law.