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Ideas won't go to jail.
- Alfred Whitney



War Crimes

Anthony McIntyre
Other View, Autumn 2001


'When a tyrant falls, the world's shadows lighten, and only hypocrites grieve'- Salman Rushdie

When the subject of ‘the disappeared’ and the Shankill Butchers came up the other evening in casual conversation it struck me that, gruesomely Pinochet-like as the war crimes of some Belfast protagonists have been, they slide easily, if disturbingly so, to the milder end of the spectrum of barbarism when compared against what the world has experienced in the last decade. A sense of the scale can be gleaned from the recent revelation by the Serbian interior minister that the bodies of about 800 Kosovo Albanians have been buried in mass graves throughout Serbia.

Now that the Yugoslav war crimes suspect Slobodan Milosevic - potentially the world's highest-ranking war criminal to stand trial since the Nazis' Hermann Goering - has joined 38 other suspects from the Balkans region in Holland's Scheveningen Prison, the hopes of many in that turbulent and tortured part of the world that they can secure some consolation through justice may soon be fulfilled. While the two greatest acts of atrocity seem to have been perpetrated at Vukovar and Srebrenica, it was the words of a woman who lost relatives in a massacre at Suva Reka in 1999 that captures the essence of what may have been Milosevic's profound barbarism: 'Babies were shot in the face, there were kids with no heads. Can you imagine the scream of a child dying?' A chillingly powerful depiction - the result of hidden processes that invariably accompany dictatorial and unaccountable power.

While unlike what were arguably his predecessors at Nuremberg who failed to avoid the noose, Milosevic, who faces charges of deportation, murder, crimes against humanity and racial persecution, is likely to spend the rest of his days in a prison cell. Too good for him, many will think, but it is the best that can be done. And he too has human rights

It seems that within the Balkans region there is a major ethical inconsistency. The recent Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevich exploited his newfound success to demand that Milosevic should stay 'locked up forever'. And then went on to oppose those generals and leaders in Croatia being handed over to The Hague arguing that they 'were just carrying out orders in an effort to ensure that our people have a better life'. A depressingly familiar if nonsensical defence which ignores the activity of Dario Kordic, once vice-president of the Bosnian Croat state who along with his military commander, Mario Cerkez, was found guilty in The Hague of persecuting, killing and detaining Muslims in central Bosnia.

This inconsistency - some would say downright hypocrisy - is not restricted to the Balkans alone. At a time when moral leadership would be expected from those who would claim insight into the perspective of the ultimate arbiter of justice, God, there is to be found within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church that typical ambiguity towards war criminals which has so characterised Vatican thinking since World War 2 at least. A practicing priest in Florence, Father Athanase Seromba, is wanted by the United Nations tribunal for Rwanda. He stands accused of ordering his own church in Nyange to be destroyed as part of the state extermination policy against the Tutsis. It was - and 2500 people died inside it. Yet Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the Rwanda tribunal complained: 'It's a scandal. Belgrade has handed over Milosevic, but Rome won't grant me this arrest'.

The Vatican's interest in protecting those wanted for war crimes is not hard to work out. Next to the government in Rwanda the Catholic Church was the most powerful institution. Not only did it do little to halt the genocide, many of its prominent people were actively involved in promoting and initiating the massacres. Not surprisingly the Vatican recently questioned the judgement of a Belgian court which jailed two Rwandan nuns for their participation in the country's genocide.

Wars are bad enough although in some cases may be inevitable. But at least facilities now exist which allow us to monitor to some degree the behaviour of those conducting war. Transparency can act as a brake on the more primordial impulses of combat soldiery in general and on the short-term expedient strategic considerations of politicians and commanders. War crimes are never justified and are invariably carried out in secret and the evidence ignominiously shovelled into underground pits. Secret graves are the universal calling card of the war criminal.

The ultimate goal of human rights agencies should be the prohibition of war. That means the intense difficulty of overcoming the paradox whereby wars in some cases may be seen as necessary for securing human rights. The wars waged by Britain and America against Iraq and in the Balkans would certainly not fit into the latter category, as they are more about strategic privilege than human rights. This was demonstrated when the then US President, Bill Clinton, stated his unwillingness to submit the United States to the jurisdiction of a permanent international war crimes tribunal which he had actually signed up to. Clearly, the intention was to avoid those wars waged for strategic privilege being regarded as a war crime.

All war crimes should be challenged and exposed. Milosevic, Seromba, Pinochet, Obrenovic, Karadzic, Mladic, Bemeriki et al should stand in The Hague and, if convicted, spend the rest of their days in prison. It is just unfortunate that Ted Heath, the British Prime Minister at the time of Bloody Sunday, shall not end his days there also.


Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.
- Alfred Whitney, Essays on Education




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