What, exactly, is a war crime?

One of the primary goals of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal — beyond the obvious one of punishing the guilty — is public education. The tribunal views itself as a kind of "truth commission" in a part of the world where facts are malleable things, filtered through the lenses of rival ethnic groups and political ...

Michael Dobbs
Michael Dobbs
Michael Dobbs

One of the primary goals of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal -- beyond the obvious one of punishing the guilty -- is public education. The tribunal views itself as a kind of "truth commission" in a part of the world where facts are malleable things, filtered through the lenses of rival ethnic groups and political parties. The first step to national reconciliation is an agreement on precisely what happened. 

That at least is the theory. In practice, as I discovered by participating in a recent "outreach" session organized by the tribunal in the Bosnian Serb-controlled town of Bijeljina, a more nuanced, elliptical approach sometimes works best.

Remember that Bosnia is a country where children are taught completely different narratives about the fratricidal war of 1992-95. In both school and home and through the media, Muslim students learn that Serbs began the war, and committed terrible atrocities. Their Serbian counterparts are raised to believe that the war was started by Islamic fundamentalists who wanted to control all of Bosnia. 

One of the primary goals of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal — beyond the obvious one of punishing the guilty — is public education. The tribunal views itself as a kind of "truth commission" in a part of the world where facts are malleable things, filtered through the lenses of rival ethnic groups and political parties. The first step to national reconciliation is an agreement on precisely what happened. 

That at least is the theory. In practice, as I discovered by participating in a recent "outreach" session organized by the tribunal in the Bosnian Serb-controlled town of Bijeljina, a more nuanced, elliptical approach sometimes works best.

Remember that Bosnia is a country where children are taught completely different narratives about the fratricidal war of 1992-95. In both school and home and through the media, Muslim students learn that Serbs began the war, and committed terrible atrocities. Their Serbian counterparts are raised to believe that the war was started by Islamic fundamentalists who wanted to control all of Bosnia. 

I was intrigued to see how tribunal outreach officer Almir Alic (photographed above) would handle a room full of Serb, Muslim, and Croat law students from different parts of Bosnia who had been invited to attend a week-long "human rights school" in Bijeljina. Situated close to the border with Serbia, Bijeljina had a 34 percent Muslim population prior to the war, but was "ethnically cleansed" and is now overwhelmingly Serb. A Bijelina resident told me that "99 percent" of the population believe that former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic is a hero.

During his talk, Alic was careful to steer clear of discussing the Mladic trial or other specific war crimes cases. Instead he tried to get the students to debate broad concepts, such as the definition of a war crime or the phenomenon of genocide denial or the raping of women. By declining to single out the misdeeds of any particular ethnic group, he was able to encourage a productive and useful discussion.

Instead of sitting in their own little groups, Serbian and Muslim students sat down next to one another, and listened to each other respectfully. They were all dressed similarly, and it was difficult to tell who was who, at least initially. As the session wore on, however, the ethnicity of some of the students became apparent because of the questions they asked 

"What about the rights of the defendants," a Serbian girl asked. She followed up by questioning the reliability of some of the testimony presented at war crimes trials, and talking about the problem of false testimony.

In a rare display of emotion, Alic said he was "surprised that you are more concerned by the rights of accused than the rights of the victims." He went on to list the rights enjoyed by defendants at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, a significant majority of whom are Serb. 

Although Alic did not identify war criminals by name, he alluded to atrocities that took place during the war, including the executions of 7,000 Muslim prisoners following the fall of Srebrenica, in a manner that was clear to all. Talking about the need to combat willful ignorance of war crimes, he referred to an incident "that took place just a few kilometers from here, where hundreds of people were murdered while other people sat sipping coffee just across the street."

A witness at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, Drazen Erdemovic, has testified that he and other Bosnian Serb soldiers sat drinking coffee in a bar opposite the Pilica Cultural Center during the executions of hundreds of Srebrenica prisoners in July 1995. There is no memorial plaque to commemorate the site of the mass killing, which is some 10 miles away from Bijeljina.

By avoiding any mention of the ethnicity of either the victims or the perpetrators, Alic succeeded in getting a mixed group of students to think seriously about war crimes in a calm, non-partisan manner. That is still a long way from building a consensus on "what happened," but in a country as divided as Bosnia, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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