The sentence condemns us to conflict – how should we avoid that?

The Appeals Chamber's sentence elicited euphoric reactions of opposite presage in both Croatia and Serbia. Few politicians in Croatia can afford not to share the general enthusiasm for the "victory of justice", that is, the general frustration and resentment of "obvious injustice" in Serbia. However, in this case, one of the most respected international judicial institutions, conceived as highly professional and highly moral, above all corruption and political influence, has considerable responsibility for the "irrational behavior of the Balkan natives" as intimately experienced by part of the international community. The difference between a 24-year prison sentence and an acquittal, without a new fact, testimony or evidence, is a serious stain on the ICTY's work; either the Trial or the Appeals Chamber has committed a bad mistake. The degree of rationality of this verdict is also indicated by the fact that the most accurate predictions were made by the Catholic clergy, who had been satanised by the Hague Tribunal for years, and in this case predicted the acquittal under the influence of the prayer vigil. Whether other non-judicial elements have influenced the decisions of the Trial Chamber or the Appeals Chamber (a member of the Appeals Chamber suggests such a possibility in a dissenting opinion, for the first time in the history of the ICTY), will be the topic of vehement legal and political debate that will track this sentence on such a sensitive issue, enacted by such a slim majority, probably for longer than the existence of the Court itself. Some local experts for worldwide conspiracies have no doubt even today: The Trial Chamber worked at the dictates of the United Kingdom, and the Appeals Chamber at those of the US.

However, the exodus of Serbs from Croatia, crimes, victims, suppression and non-prosecution of crimes, mass burning of houses, speeches made by Tudjman, Jura Radić, Bosiljko Mišetić… the establishment of a border regime that had been, for months, preventing and, after years, hindering the return of refugees… remain the facts that, unfortunately, no court's decision can change.

These days, one often cites Gotovina's statement from a short and measured speech delivered in the euphoric atmosphere of Zagreb's main square: „Okrenimo se budućnosti“ ("Let's turn to the future"). It is possible that there are two choices for Croatia in terms of turning to the future. It may shortly enjoy a triumphalism in which the increasingly vocal types with a peculiar conception of justice become more and more loud - a parliamentarian has already heard demanding, pursuant to the Hague verdict, to abolish Glavaš and terminate Merčep's trial. It may decide not to heed other people's frustrations and deep feelings of injustice, especially among refugees, who already counted the eighteenth year of their exile. Such frustrations easily turn into hatred that could poison the lives of people in this area for decades and be a latent source of some new conflict. There are numerous examples, from the creation of fertile ground for the rise of Nazism in Germany after World War I, to the creation of terrorist organizations, largely out of desperation, among Palestinian refugees.

The other choice is that the part of the Croatian politicians who currently determine Croatian politics, primarily the government and the president of the Republic, show enough wisdom, which Tudjman and the Croatian political leadership did not have after the Operation Storm to ‘’show generosity in their victory’’. To publicly renounce the policies that defiled the country's liberation with its ideas of "ethnic purity" and the ways to achieve it, to address to the people, who were victims of those actions, words that would show that today's Croatian official policy is not insensitive to their suffering and that these words are accompanied by procedures that will be of concrete help.

For the time being, such a message, apart from two half-sentences by president and prime minister and statements by some Croatian non-governmental organizations, was only sent by Gotovina himself, in a most direct manner and to everyone’s surprise. His calm short speech on the Square, while people who expected and wished speech with much less tolerance were crowding around him, was in such contrast with the created atmosphere that it was accompanied by whistles, even though Gotovina enjoyed the status of a walking saint in those moments. He reminded many that there is much presumption in Gotovina's present-day views and little is known and that neither before nor after the Operation Storm, when many politicians, academics, writers, and soldiers competed in statements that could make today a book about intolerance and bigotry, he did not make such a statement. His statement in an interview with the journalist of "Kurir", that every refugee from Croatia who is in Serbia today, as well as himself, is entitled to Croatia as his homeland, that "all those who want to return- should return, and that Croatia is their house as much as his”, was amazing, and sounded sincere and noble. To be precise, it sounded honest to me, and it would be very important for Croatia and I would very much like it to be truly honest.

At this moment, an initiative that will go towards appeasing the situation, correcting injustices, treating all war crimes on an equal basis, should come from the Croatian side; the Serb side is hurt by what they consider to be a profound injustice, not so much by the acquittal for Gotovina and Markač as by the implication of that verdict - that the crimes in which Serbs were the victims almost never existed and that the peasants left their homes, farms, cattle and fled into years of exile wantonly. It is now easy to think superiorly that the main problem is in Serbs and Serbian politicians because they cannot face the truth that Serbia was the aggressor. Let us imagine for a moment what outraged and irrational reactions there would have occurred in the Croatian public and among Croatian politicians if the thin majority in the Appeals Chamber had prevailed on the other side.

This is not an important football match in which one side won on penalties or on a doubtfully awarded eleven, but the moment when the choice of procedures can largely determine the future of relations in this region and between Croats and Serbs (for most for whom it is still not a private matter of every individual). I hope it is not too much to expect from the Croatian and Serbian politicians to show a little more rationality than football fans show. Rationality and empathy, which have always been lacking in this region, and which in this case, by noting that the world is sometimes more complex than it seems, have been most clearly demonstrated by Gotovina himself.

Prof Zoran Pusic
President of Association of NGO of Southestern Europe, CIVIS

About Author Zoran Pusić

zoran pusic autor

Zoran Pusić is the president of ‘Građanski odbor za ljudska prava’ (Civic Committee for Human Rights) in Croatia and co-president of Regional Association of non-governmental organisations called “Igman initiative“. He actively supported the return and reintegration of refugees, prosecution of war crimes and regional co-operation since 1995. Zoran is also President of Association of NGOs of Southeastern Europe, CIVIS.

[i] Zoran Pusić is the president of ‘Građanski odbor za ljudska prava’ (Civic Committee for Human Rights) in Croatia and co-president of Regional Association of non-governmental organisations called “Igman initiative“. He actively supported the return and reintegration of refugees, prosecution of war crimes and regional co-operation since 1995. Zoran is also President of Association of NGOs of Southeastern Europe, CIVIS.

[ii] The case is about the trial of Croatian generals Ivan Čermak, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač accused at the ICTY for participation in a joint criminal enterprise, as the ICTY prosecution assessed the intention of the Croatian political summit in 1995 to abuse the military operation "Storm" that liberated part of Croatia's territory, in order to reduce the number of Serbs in Croatia. Based on a series of indicators, which he explains in 1500 pages, the Trial Chamber (first instance verdict) accepted the existence of the idea of then political leadership about the abuse of Storm, acquitted I. Čermak, and sentenced A. Gotovina to 24 years in prison and M. Markač to 18 years in prison. The Appeals Chamber of Five Judges concluded, in the ratio of three to two, two judges had the opposite, dissenting, opinion of the majority decision of the Appeals Chamber that there was insufficient evidence, that Gotovina and Markač had ordered indiscriminate shelling of four cities. Hence the majority in the Appeals Chamber draws the conclusion not only that Gotovina and Markac were not involved in the effort of reducing the number of Serbs in Croatia, which the Trial Chamber accepted as a joint criminal enterprise, but that the Trial Chamber did not even have sufficient evidence to conclude at all that such an intention existed. The Appeals Chamber rendered, by decision three to two, the second instance and final verdict acquitting Gotovina and Markač.

[iii] Franjo Tuđman, President of the Republic of Croatia 1990-1999, for example, a speech in Karlovac on August 26, 1995, 18 days after the end of the ‘’Storm’’: "And those who reprimand us for burning Serbian houses in liberated parts of Croatia, should recall the biblical principle, from the Old Testament, eye for eye, tooth for tooth." Or: “The Serbs have infamously disappeared from these parts as if they never existed. But there are more of them, even here with you! Of the 22 judges in Karlovac, seven are Serbs."

[iv] Jure Radić, Minister of Reconstruction in the Government of the Republic of Croatia in 1995, for example at a meeting with Tuđman on August 22, 1995: "More than 10% of Serbs should not be allowed in these areas (from where the Serbs fled)." Tuđman: "Not even 10%."

[v] Bosiljko Mišetić, Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Croatia in 1995, for example a speech in August 1995: "Croatia does not want people belonging to another nation to live in it".

[vi] Branimir Glavaš, Croatian general, parliamentarian, convicted in Croatia for war crimes, fled to Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is now serving his prison sentence in Zenica.

[vii] Tomislav Merčep, commander of a special police unit, a former parliamentarian, is now on trial in Croatia for war crimes.

[viii] Belgrade newspaper, whose journalist called Gotovina and got him on the phone.