The initiative to calm down the situation, redress the wrongdoings, give equal attention to all war crimes should come from the Croatian side. The Serbian side feels damaged by what they perceive as fundamental injustice - not so much with the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac in itself but more with the implications arising from the judgment. The judgment implies that crimes against Serb victims were insignificant and that farmers left their homes, property and livestock and embarked on living as refugees for years out of spite almost - stressed Zoran Pusic, President of Civic Committee for Human Rights in Croatia

Zoran PusicZoran Pusic

The Appeals Chamber’s judgment provoked euphoric but opposite reactions in Croatia and Serbia. There are few Croatian politicians that can afford to stay out of the overall excitement over the ‘triumph of justice’. Only few politicians in Serbia however can avoid being part of general frustration and bitterness over the ‘obvious lack of justice’. However, in this particular case, a significant portion of responsibility for ‘the irrational behaviour of the savages from the Balkans’ – as we are intimately perceived by part of the international community - lays with one of the most respectable international judicial institutions, envisioned as a highly professional and ethical entity, above any corruption or political influence. The difference between the sentence of 24 years in prison and an acquittal is a serious stain on the ICTY’s work. The judgment of acquittal was rendered without presenting a single new fact, testimony or evidence; a severe error was made either by Trial judges or Appeals Chamber. The fact that the Catholic clergy presented the most accurate predictions about the outcome of the trial points somewhat to the degree of rationalism of the judgment. Catholic church in Croatia has been criticizing the Hague Tribunal for years and in this particular case they predicted the acquittal based on prayer vigils. Were there any other extra-judicial elements that influenced the decisions of the Trial or the Appeals Chamber (for the first time in the history of the ICTY, one judge in the Appeals Chamber suggested such a possibility in his dissenting opinion). This question will most likely outlive the Tribunal and will stay on the agenda for intense legal and political debates about the judgment that dealt with such a sensitive topic and was rendered with such narrow majority of votes. Some local experts on the issue ofworldwide conspiracy e.g. admiral Domazet Loso have no doubts whatsoever: the Trial Panel acted on the directives of the Great Britain, whilst the Appeals Chamber was directed by the United States.

Nevertheless, there are some other facts that unfortunately can not be overturned by the decision of any court: the exodus of Serbs from Croatia, the existence of victims; concealing crimes and not prosecuting them; many instances of burning houses; public speeches of Tudjman[1], Jure Radic[2], Bosiljko Misetic[3], … establishment of the state border regime that has first prevented and then for years made it hard for the refugees to return to their homes…

These days, Gotovina’s statement has been frequently quoted. In a brief and balanced speech held in a euphoric atmosphere at the main square in Zagreb, Gotovina said “let’s turn to the future”. In the case of Croatia, turning to the future implies two options. Croatia can short-sightedly enjoy the triumphalism where individuals having distinctive ideas of justice are getting louder – we could already hear a Parliament Member suggesting the abolishment of Glavas’s[4] conviction and termination of the proceedings against Mercep[5] based on theICTY’s judgment. It can further decide not to take notice of frustrations and the strong sense of injustice especially with the refugees who have been living away from their homes for 18 years. Such frustrations may easily grow into hatred poisoning for the next decades the lives of people living in this area. This hatred might as well be the covert source of possible new conflicts. There are numerous examples of similar situations in the past: from the creation of fertile ground for the rise of Nazism in Germany after World War I to the creation of terrorist organisations, largely out of desperation, among the exiled Palestinians.

The other possibility is that Croatian politicians currently formulating Croatian policies, e.g. Government and the President of the Republic, demonstrate sufficient wisdom and “express generosity in the moment of victory”. Tudjman and the then Croatian political elite lacked this wisdom after operation ‘Storm’. This wisdom should include public renouncing of the policies that corrupted liberation of the country with ideas about “ethnic cleansing” and methods of its implementation; sending the message to people, victims of such methods, to demonstrate that today’s Croatian official politics is not oblivious to their suffering; corroborating this message with deeds aimed at offering actual help.

So far, apart from two half-phrases by the President and Prime Minister and statements by some Croatian non-governmental organisations, such a message was to everyone’s surprise delivered by Gotovina himself. He gave a calm brief speech at the Square, while crowds gathered around him expected and wished for the language coloured with far less tolerance. This speech was in such contradiction with the created atmosphere, that it was whistled despite the fact that, at the moment, Gotovina enjoyed the status of a living saint. Gotovina reminded many that there was too much speculation about his present views, while not enough true information. Moreover, in the aftermath of the operation ‘Storm’, when many politicians, academics, writers and soldiers competed in making statements that nowadays could be used as material for a book on animosity and intolerance, Gotovina did not make any such statement.In an interview to “Kurir“[6], Gotovina stated that each refugee currently living in Serbia has the right to consider Croatia their homeland as much as he did and he invited them to return. These statements were surprising and sounded sincere and noble. To be accurate, they appeared sincere to me and it would be extremely important for Croatia that this was the case. I would truly wish that they were indeed sincere.

At the moment, Croatia should call for an initiative to calm down the situation, redress the wrongdoings and give equal attention to all war crimes. The Serbian side feels damaged by what they perceive as a fundamental injustice - not so much with the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac itself but much more with the implications arising from the judgment. The judgment implies that crimes against Serb victims were insignificant and that farmers left their homes, property and livestock and embarked on years of refugee life out ofspite almost. It is easy to act smart and superior now saying that the main problem lays with the Serbs and Serbian politicians not being able to face the truth about Serbia being the aggressor. But let’s just imagine for a moment the scope of bitter and irrational reactions that would have emerged from the Croatian public and the politicians had the Appeals Chamber’s fine majority tilted the balance towards the other side.

This is not an important football match where one team won on penalties or got awarded a dubious penalty. This is the moment when the choice of actions to a large degree might determine the future relations in the region, especially between Croats and Serbs (for the most individuals that are still not seeing these relations as private matter). I hope it is not too much to expect from both Croatian and Serbian politicians to show a higher level of rationalism than that demonstrated by football fans. I hope they will show rationality and empathy that have always been lacking in this region. In this case, when one has to keep in mind that the world is sometimes much more complex than it seems, these two values have been most clearly shown by Gotovina himself.

Author is the President of Civic Committee for Human Rights in Croatia

[1]Franjo Tuđman, the President of the Republic of Croatia during the period 1990 -1999., e.g. his speech in Karlovac on 26.8.1995., 18 days after the completion of the operation “Storm”: " Those who reproachabout torching of Serb houses in liberated areas of Croatia should remind themselves that it is exactly the Bible principle from the Old Testament that teach us ‘an eye for an eye’ " or:“ Serbs have ingloriously vanished from these regions as if they have never existed. But, there are more of them also here among you! Of 22 judges in Karlovac seven of them are Serbs. “

[2]Jure Radić, the Minister of Reconstruction in the Croatian Government in 1995, e.g. at the meeting with Tuđman on 22.8.1995: “You must not allow in those areas (which Serb had fled from) more then 10% of Serbs”. Tuđman: “Even less then 10%”.

[3]Bosiljko Mišetić, the Vice President of the Croatian Government in 1995, e.g. his speech in August 1995: “Croatia does not wish that people of other ethnicities live in it“.

[4]Branimir Glavaš, the Croatian General, Parliament Member, convicted of committing war crimes in Croatia, fled to B&H. At present, he serves his imprisonment term at the Zenica penitentiary.

[5]Tomislav Merčep, Commander of the special police unit, former Parliament Member, at present standing trial for committing war crimes in Croatia.

[6]Belgrade based newspaper whose reporter had a brief phone interview with Gotovina