Opinion: Acquittal does not mean absolution | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 01.03.2013
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Opinion: Acquittal does not mean absolution

A United Nations war crimes appeals court in The Hague has acquitted Serb General Momcilo Perisic, who in 2011 was sentenced to 27 years in prison. Law and justice are increasingly diverging, says DW's Dragoslav Dedovic.

DW Serbian's Dragoslav Dedovic

DW Serbian's Dragoslav Dedovic

Finally a Serb has been acquitted in The Hague, too! This acquittal fits with a number of similar rulings: Kosovo's ex-rebel leader and former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, charged with brutality against ethnic Serbs in the 1998-99 Kosovo war, was acquitted in November 2012 of crimes against humanity in a rehearing at the United Nations tribunal. Just a few weeks earlier, the appeals court overturned convictions against Croatian military leaders Ante Gotovina und Mladen Markac. Judges had previously sentenced the generals, accused of killing civilians and soldiers during Croatia's 1991-1995 war, to 24 and 18 years in jail, respectively.

For lack of a better option, one should not contest the principle of having to accept legally binding verdicts. However, it is reasonable to wonder: How is it that the first verdicts could have been so completely wrong? Should appellate rulings be recognized as a political correction of the previous court's legal rigor? We should be allowed to ask why the "handymen of war" from different countries emerge so often unscathed; is the UN Yugoslav war crimes court overwhelmed? Is it, perhaps, not entirely independent of political demands?

West of the Balkans, a number of conspiracy theories have been circulating, for instance that Croatia's generals were supposedly set free because otherwise, the country - with the displacement and murder of Serbs proven, allegedly in cooperation with US advisors - would not have been allowed into the European Union. Supposedly, rebel chief Ramush Haradinaj was a NATO ally in the war against Belgrade; the West did not want to place itself into question. So what about the Serb, Perisic?

Discrediting international justice?

Sure, the many acquittals have angered Belgrade in cases where the crimes were against Serbs. Thus, the acquittal of Perisic creates equilibrium ahead of the next round of difficult talks between representatives from Serbia and Kosovo, which declared independence from Belgrade in 2008 with the support of leading Western countries. Acquitting a Serb general makes it easier to invalidate Belgrade's accusations that the tribunal is anti-Serb.

Observers would like to believe this is true, but that is in fact speculative. Possibly, it is easier to understand the facts from the point of view of the victims. The acquitted gentlemen are responsible for the suffering of civilians: they ordered, tolerated or accepted it. While they clearly had different levels of power and were involved in different kinds of warfare, the similarities are glaring. Civilians died in the shadow of military rule - but the tribunal in The Hague was not in a position to prove their guilt. And secondly, all three are regarded as heroes within their own ethnic groups, but they aggravate everyone else.

The Hague has no response, neither legal nor moral, to these facts. Nationalists in the former Yugoslavia will feel encouraged in their hostile attitude to the international court. Local courts will be reluctant to open that can of worms. The victims' families will feel even more abandoned. In their eyes, law and justice in The Hague increasingly diverge. This is a dangerous development because all over the western Balkans, the younger generation is being raised with the myths of victims and heroes from the 1990s, and a nationalism that is taken for granted. Already, they're thinking: No justice - no peace.

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