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Can international justice be free of politics?

Mark Urban | 18:44 UK time, Thursday, 31 July 2008

kara203.jpgNow that we have seen and heard Radovan Karadzic in the dock, facing a grim litany of charges, we might as well consider two issues that he raised.

For Karadzic's defence, in as much as we have now heard one, poses questions about how far ends justify means and also how far international criminal justice, applied to the leaders of warring factions, can ever be shorn of politics.

The former Bosnian Serb leader argued firstly that in 1996, following the Dayton peace agreement, which ended the Bosnian war, he was promised by the agreement's architect, Richard Holbrooke, that he would avoid prosecution if he quit public life and disappeared.

Mr Karadzic also alleged that he had been detained by unknown persons three days before his official arrest, and not allowed to communicate prior to his delivery to a special court in Belgrade. The Serbian rumour mill has it alternatively that he was lifted by Serbian intelligence agents, by bounty hunters, or by western intelligence agencies.

We can expect vociferous denials of these claims, but in some measure there is substance to them. Firstly it was well understood in Nato after it moved into Bosnia, that no serious attempt to arrest Mr Karadzic was to be made - and the top civilian representative Carl Bildt confirmed as much on Newsnight last week.

Did Nato's inaction arise solely from a desire not to inflame Serb opinion or is this evidence of a deal ? Well, here's a clue - no determined efforts were made to arrest Mr Karadzic under President Clinton's administration. Dayton was a triumph of that president's diplomacy, not so George W. Bush.

Now you might argue that it doesn't matter what kind of promises are made to a rogue like Radovan Karadzic, so long as it stops a ghastly war. Something similar happened with Charles Taylor in Liberia. Despite his truly grim record of atrocities, he was first given sanctuary in Nigeria under a deal, but later that was torn up and he was put on a plane to the International Criminal Court.

The problem with making deals cynically is that others take note. Many believe this is why we are where we are with Robert Mugabe. He simply does not believe those who might try to convince him that he could retire quietly to the countryside if he handed power to Morgan Tsvangarai.

In short, this is the dilemma with indicting leaders. They are the ones capable of leading their people into peace deals, of ending horrific conflicts. Would it be satisfactory for Bosnian Serb officers to be prosecuted for their crimes but not Radovan Karadzic ? Certainly, I favour prosecuting the generals or the actual torturers - forget for the moment the narrative that they are not ultimately responsible, since they are clearly liable for their own acts.

Does that mean letting go Karadzic or Slobodan Milosevic - the overall Serbian leader (now dead) who many consider the man ultimately responsible for the Balkan tragedy of the 1990s ? My answer would be, that if such leaders are promised immunity as part of a peace agreement, that deal, however distasteful or deniable, will have to be honoured, since others around the world will be watching.

If Mr Karadzic proves his case on this point, it may not save him from prosecution, but it will be deeply discreditable to American diplomacy.

The other issue concerns bringing someone to a court by illegal, or more accurately extra-legal or unorthodox, means. Did bounty hunters collar Karadzic ? Many of you may not be bothered. It's what Israel did with the Nazi Adolf Eichman in 1960 or Turkey with Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK Kurdish separatist group in 1999 - bundled them on planes.

At least Mr Karadzic went through some sort of extradition formality in Belgrade. If bringing a war criminal or terrorist to trial this way doesn't bother you, consider the Americans doing the same with al-Qaeda.

Does rendition in this context matter ? I do not mean secret jails or torture in countries where such treatment of suspects is possible. By rendition, I simply mean apprehending someone overseas without the usual procedures and bringing them before a court for trial.

The way people process this dilemma depends to a great degree on their political stance. It's like those who thought the Iraq war illegal because it was not specifically sanctioned by a UN Security Council resolution - but approved of Nato's war over Kosovo, similarly bereft of Security Council cover. Neo-cons thought Iraq was justified, liberals that Kosovo was a daring departure in 'humanitarian intervention'.

All of this then brings us back to the politics of indictments and trials, notably of leaders - the people who symbolise a particular point of view. It is often going to problematic, and whatever the assurances of those involved in prosecuting such cases, political motives are bound to be ascribed to them. One thing is clear though from yesterday's proceedings in the Hague - the court's determination to push ahead rapidly.

For down the line in a year and a half the Tribunal's UN Yugoslav mandate will expire. This will give Russia its chance, if it wishes to pose once more as the defender of slav interests, to be obstructive about renewing it. Or would that simply be playing politics ?


  • Comment number 1.


    Is it not the way of deluded leaders who get above themselves, that they kill a lot of innocent 'others' just because they can? To get away with it, the trick would seem to be to have America at your side.

  • Comment number 2.


    You say 'that in 1996, following the Dayton peace agreement, which ended the Bosnian war, he was promised by the agreement's architect, Richard Holbrooke, that he would avoid prosecution if he quit public life and disappeared.'

    Holbrooke wrote in a column in the Washington Post just last week that the one and only time he met Karadzic was in Belgrade on 13 September 1995. Holbrooke also notes that Gen.Wesley Clarke and Christopher Hill were present. A former Yugoslav official, Vladimir Nadezdin, has stated that not only was an immunity deal made but that it was put in writing. The account confirms the approximate date and location. However, Alexa Buha, the then Bosnia Srpska Foreign Minister places the meeting at June 1966. Not only do the dates not match but Buha says that a similar deal was made about a year later with Madeleine Albright. Albright was at the time US ambassador to the UN and Warren Christopher was Secretary was Secretary of State so this version is highly improbable.

    Nevertheless, someone is being economical with the truth. Whether Holbrooke made the offer and on whose authority depends on who you believe. Holbrooke denies it and has said that he will give evidence to that effect if necessary. If it turned out to be true, I agree that it would cast a shadow over the Karadizic trial. The question has to be addressed.

    Just as an aside, Holbrooke is considered to be a candidate for Secretary of State should Obama win so the sooner it is addressed, the better.

  • Comment number 3.

    All interesting stuff. To change the subject slightly. I have always had difficulty in seeing any difference between young men lined-up and shot in the back or a bomb dropped on distant figures; its all cold blooded murder to me. The only difference is a close-up and personal video footage hits your emotional buttons much harder than the distant explosion; a grainy video taken from an F16.
    Karadzic for some Serbs is the classic nationalist hero whilst we condemn his murderous past activities with the full knowledge we are high up on the moral mound with the scales of international law our back drop... or so we'd like to think. Am i the only one who sees the hypocrisy? The international tribunals that takes to task war criminals will only have real validity when it appears not to discriminate who they charge.

    A list of war criminals i think should also face charges of crimes against humanity. Past, present, living or dead.

    To name only a few:
    Bush. (both)
    The military manufacturers and arms
    The international banking families who
    always profit from war ect ect.

    There ain't no shortage of criminals against humanity...the hague should be busy on this almost inexhaustive list... but instead picks and chooses thanks to a bent perspective..and its pay masters..

  • Comment number 4.


    But law and justice are secondary to the paradoxical human trait of elevating to leadership our most aberrant individuals.

    Those who can are long-gone; those who can't - govern.

    Wisdom cannot grow in the shit of cleverness.

  • Comment number 5.

    #2 threnodio

    Very interesting points. I am no lawyer but I would have thought any deal does not change things unless the people making the deal are linked to those prosecuting. But if I am correct the US has never signed up to the International courts since people threatened to prosecute Kissinger therefore could they influence matters?

    I seem to recall being quite suspicious that some deal had been struck. There was a report (Beeb I think) where a very brave female reporter basically said the US and the UK are going to get you and Karadic and Mladic doubled up laughing. Therefore to me they knew damned well there was no risk. It didn't seem like bravado.

    I like to think I am not a conspiracy theorist by the way. I think people in authority don't get respect they earn it. If they can cover something up as its easier and in their interests they will. Mushroom theory again.

    With all due respects to the Beeb the media are supposed to be the guardians of democracy. I am not always convinced of the reality but then I suppose they get it from all sides whatever they do.

  • Comment number 6.

    #2 threnodio

    Am I going nuts(!?).

    Did we exchange pleasantries on Nick Robinsons
    "Testing the waters"?

    The posts don't seem to be there anymore.

  • Comment number 7.


    This is why, I believe, the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is entirely separate from the ICC. ITFY was set up a Security Coucil resolution of 25 May 1993 ( and is responsible to UNHCR. The US is part of this process and I think Holbrooke can be called if need be.

  • Comment number 8.


    No, you are quite sane. I pointed you in the direction of this thread under that heading but our recent exchange of pleasantries was on the previous one (Context is everything) and are still there :-)

  • Comment number 9.

    #7 threnodio

    Ok I see your point. To be honest I thought this was the ICC, I should pay more attention!

    I assume Holbrooke can't commit perjury so we would get the truth?

    I will be interested to see if Rifkind(?) knew at the time.

    The Obama SofS point by the way is timely. Does this relate to Karadzic being found I wonder - pre-selection discussions for vulnerability?

    Mark Urbans point about the renewal of the mandate could also suggest this is another charade. Karadzic plays for time until Russia won't renew. Then the West is seen to have tried to get Karadzic but they don't annoy the Russians too much.


    Mark Urban I agree that if somebody said a deal would get rid of Mugabe I would be happy to see it happen. If he could be later prosecuted as Taylor was I doubt I would weep.

    I suppose as you suggest it comes down to credibility of the process, if its no more than a kangaroo court that diminishes the legal process then its counter productive in the long run.

  • Comment number 10.

    #8 threnodio
    Thanks :-)

  • Comment number 11.

    9 - thegangofone

    Being utterly cynical for a moment, I suppose Holbrooke could commit perjury if it was his word against Karadzic. I think organising Clark, Hill and possibly Christopher and Clinton into such a conspiracy would be asking too much.

    To be honest, I sense a bluff here which has backfired. You can imagine the scenario. Karadzic quietly asks Holbrooke for immunity, Holbrooke wants this in the can now after hours of acrimonious negotiation so he agrees unofficially because he needs authority for this. The resulting note is screwed up and binned, authority is never obtained and everyone forgets about it until 13 years later, by which time the written evidence has long gone. Bottom line is that, unless Clarke or Hill come forward, Holbrooke cannot prove it did not happen. Karadzic, on the other hand, has at least one witness.

    Mladic was also at that meeting, by the way. He would know. Interesting times.

  • Comment number 12.

    #11 threnodio

    Interesting times indeed - I must admit I never believed they would get either of the duo.

    I suppose one of the reasons was that I suspected a deal might have been made to keep Russia onside whilst they tried to stabilise the Balkans. As an aside there was an interesting piece in the papers (Observer?) by Ashdown, suggesting Bosnia was nowhere near as stable now as people assume.

    The Russians might have had access to the notes?

    I suspect its not a bluff as Karadzic was able to move about easily and people knew where he was - Karl Bildt if I spelt his name correctly. I also don't see Mladic giving evidence?

    Also is it not Karadzic who must prove the deal DID happen? I am no lawyer, and you know your stuff so I will take your word on it.

  • Comment number 13.

    Mark Urban raises some good questions.

    Under the present international system, the justice of an equally applied law cannot be achieved.

    We only try the losers, not the winners.

    If promises were made, they do not count.
    I think of the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, etc. (Idi Amin did find permanent haven in Saudi Arabia, but that was not a US promise).

    Urban also raises the idea of the (proclaimed) "end justifying the means". Perhaps 85% of mankind tacitly subscribes to this, especially if nationalist considerations are involved.

    Eichmann was kidnapped. In law, his kidnappers could be brought back to Argentina to face justice.

    However, employees of a state doing state business are usually treated very softly- consider the Israeli murder in Norway, the French killing of a Greenpeace man in New Zealand, and the US law that declares that state employees cannot be charged with terrorist acts.

    Robin Lustig visited a UN post, asked, and was directed to the hideout of a UN "wanted" leader.

    If one wishes peace in or from a nation, threatening the leader of the nation does not seem to be the most effective approach.

    Perhaps the root problem is the organization of the system of nations. Power and identity need to be gradually shifted to a supra-national level.

  • Comment number 14.

    threnodio, gang

    well, Holbrooke has really poured scorn on this idea of a 'deal'. He has been expecting Karadzic to play this card for some time, since his supporters have long made various claims in this regard.
    What it might well boil down to is some coded use of language - 'step down, and you will have a quiet life' rather than any sort of explicit, let alone written promise. This is why Karadzic's attempts to justify this version of events could be ineteresting. None of it, of course, changes the evidence in matters such as Srebrenica...

    Thinking more about this question of whether promises can be made to end conflicts, it often boils down to whether total or limited war is being waged. Total war demands unconditional surrender, Nuremberg trials, the whole panoply of defeat versus victory. In limited wars, people may often be keener to make deals...

    Xie Ming
    I agree with your point about the politicisation of international justice remaining a problem unil certain powers might be shifted to a supra-national level. But do you think any of those party to the current systemm, with its powers rooted in the UN Security Council, would want to change it, be that US, Russia, China, France or UK ?

  • Comment number 15.

    Mark, I think you raise a good point about deals with the undesirable.

    One case that may be of significance is Pinoche - apparently assured of immunity in order stand down bloodlessly but then pursued by every socialist group in the world in an attempt to renege on the deal. You may remember the attempts to have him arrested when he entered England for medical treatment. Strangely, many of the same people who demanded his arrest are luke warm about prosecuting Karadzic.

    What effect does this have when you want a Mugabe or Sadam or whoever to step down without bloodshed? Can they trust the deal? Is it actually possible for them to step down bloodlessly now?

    A counter example might be Idi Amin. It worked, but is it ethically right?

  • Comment number 16.

    #14 Mark_Urban

    Mark given you handle the diplomacy a question is would they have written such a deal down. I can't see Mladic and Karadzic believing the US otherwise. Also I thought the US and Russia were quite close (intelligence shared with them etc) on this so if there was a deal they would have known and would be upset if it was not honoured?

    Also are Bildt and Holbrooke in agreement? Was Karadzic able to move around too easily.

    On the general point you made about the circumstances of a deal it would have made people vomit if Saddam had been offered a deal i.e. money to clear off. But would we have been a lot better off in stability terms if we had done that? I can't recall if he WAS offered such a deal and rejected it by the way.

    The point I was trying to make though is if a deal saves a lot of lives and offers more stability than persuing politics through war it is more efficient though distasteful. Therefore its not necessarily the actual or projected outcome of a war thats the issue.

    On the other hand if you keep doing that then future tyrants will fight to the last man rather than look for the exit door.

  • Comment number 17.


    Today, the power-based Security Council system would be hard to abruptly change.

    The indoctrination of children in schools could be the key.

    Patriotism and religious tribalism are taught and indoctrinated.

    It should be equally possible to indoctrinate tolerance and internationalism.

    Let us begin with the media.

  • Comment number 18.

    14 - Mark_Urban

    Yes, I am not going to off on a wild goose chase of complex conspiracy theories on this. I was intrigued by the discrepancy as to dates mainly. Your 'step down, and you will have a quiet life' theory accords my thinking - in which case -

    16 - thegangofone

    - it doesn't very much matter whether it was written down or not because it would not have been worth the paper it was written on without consultation and authority. As Mark says, it doesn't change the fact that the events occurred. There is no reason any 'informal assurance' would not have been known to Bildt, Rifkind, Christopher or anyone else who was not in the room at the time.

    15 - jon112uk

    The difference in the Pinochet case was there was never any question of him being wanted by an international tribunal. As I remember, it was the Spanish who wanted him for alleged crimes against Spanish nationals. In the end, Jack Straw packed him off back to Chile on medical grounds, more one suspects to avoid a public row with Margaret Thatcher than anything else. But remember that Pinochet had not gone to war with anyone and in that sense was not a looser, which neatly brings us to -

    13 - Xie_Ming

    - who is absolutely right. It is one law for the winners and another one for the losers. All I can say in response to that it is far from being satisfactory but, as Robin Lustig says on his blog, it is the best we can do until someone comes up with a better idea. Personally, I would rather set a few stark examples rather than let everyone off the hook on the basis of even-handedness. It seems to me that this would be a murderer's charter.

    Incidentally, Robin Lustig chooses to contrast the Karadzic case with al-Bashir. The difference there is that the latter is still in power and may yet play a pivotal role in any solution. Basically, whichever side you are on, you only go to trial when you have outlived your useful purpose.

  • Comment number 19.

    ERRATUM - #18, para 3 should of course have read . . . would have been known . . .


  • Comment number 20.

    #18 threnodio

    I bow to your greater knowledge. I was thinking of it being a formal US President/government signed note. But even then I suppose that you are right because they are part of the UNHCR but could not be said to be controlling it.

  • Comment number 21.

    20 - thegangofone

    I am only surmising. My knowledge is no greater than yours.

  • Comment number 22.

    #21 threnodio

    Err I hope on law your knowledge WOULD be greater than mine as I know zip, barring a little experience in suing on property matters.

    On the seizure issue if the people were hired hands due to security issues I assume that doesn't matter if they were acting legally on behalf of the government?

    I can see how they wouldn't be falling over themselves to say "this is where I live and this is where my little daughter goes to school" etc.

  • Comment number 23.

    #22 - thegangofone

    On law, possibly but not Serbian law. Certainly, in the England and Wales, anybody can make a citizen's arrest and anyone can detain a person if they believe them to be a wanted criminal. I think there are rules regarding using reasonable force. If they do so, they must ensure that the detained person is transferred to the proper authorities without delay. Basically, if you catch a burglar, you can nick him but you cannot beat hell out him before calling the police or keep in the cellar overnight. If you know the whereabouts of a wanted person and you have no reason to think he is going to 'do a runner', you are supposed to keep and eye on him until the police arrive.

    If that's the case in Serbia, then he was arrested not kidnapped so, providing he was not mistreated, I would think that is OK. Dravic had let it be known he was going on holiday so if someone figured out that Dravic and Karadzic were one and the same and wanted to detain him before he disappeared, I don't see the problem. If it was a foreign security service, I guess it depends whether they were there with knowledge and consent. If there was a bounty involved, I am sorry, I have no idea.

  • Comment number 24.

    #23 threnodio

    Thanks. I'll let those burglars out of the cellar now then!

    I shouldn't overdo it by the way or Mark is going to start wondering if there is not another runaway train on his blog.

    Now if you want to get me started on a conspiracy theory I am going to be keeping an eye on the anthrax killer/suicide in the US. I thought its timing suspicious in relation to the debate on war with Iraq (as I recollect it) and it stopped so whomever it was was in control and not a typical runaway nut on a killing spree. Probably turn out to be quite a mundane story.

    Meanwhile I am hoping Mark will be looking at the Taliban penetration of the Pakistani ISI? May partially explain his own "exciting experiences" in Afghanistan.

    Happy blogging.

  • Comment number 25.


    Someone has posted the following on Paul Mason's blog.

    'I think Mark Urban may have set a new world record for uses of 'of course' in one sentence.'

    I can find no evidence to support this and no possible link to Paul's fascinating world of economics but I thought you should know about it. Maybe you can sue.

  • Comment number 26.

    #24 - thegangofone

    No worries. But don't start me on anthrax. You know I get twitchy when the are dodgy substances around.

  • Comment number 27.

    What a load of old cobblers.

    The man's guilty, it's irrelevant who arrested him or that he was held in detention for three days before it was reported around the world.

    As for any deals he may have made; tough.
    They should just pronounce the sentence now and implement it immediately.

    Then Bush and Blair should be arrested and dealt with similarly for their crimes which are equally abhorrent.

  • Comment number 28.

    #27 - cruiskeen

    It is precisely this kind of irresponsible prejudgment the tribunal is designed to prevent. Transparency of justice is paramount and this includes a presumption of innocence prior to a verdict been handed down.

    In the light of thoughtful and persuasive comments made by Richard Holbrooke over the weekend, I agree that the so called agreement is an exaggeration of what happened and is irrelevant to the trial proceeding. But that is entirely different from the old principle of justice being 'not only done but seen to be done'.

    Nothing would discredit the international judicial process more quickly and totally that the perception that it was unfair or incomplete.

    'The man's guilty . . . just pronounce the sentence now and implement it immediately' - is precise the kind of 'old cobblers' the Tribunal was set up to eliminate.

  • Comment number 29.

    The problem is that there is no such thing as 'international law'. A few treaties such as the Geneva convention exist, but the correct legal process for brach of the geneva convention is a military tribunal according to the military law of the prosecuting nation.

    i.e SS men machine gun US POW's. SS men are tried by US court martial under the same murder laws that would be used against a US soldier who killed illegally. This is basically what happened at Nuremberg (and I'm not debating the rights and wrongs of that trial just stating fact).

    When someone is tried in a civillian court for war crimes it should be under the civil law of the country where the crime took place. Trying Saddam in an Iraqi court was correct. Trying a Lithuanian SS man who commited war crimes in Poland in an English court is not.

    The ICC in the Hague is a weird, politically motivated set-up that doesn't quite serve anyone well, not least because the scope of its cases are too large. Both Saddam and the nazis at Nuremberg were tried on sample charges. It wasn't desirable or sensible to prove they killed everyone they did. Karadzic should be tried for 1 sample murder case that can be proved. Thats all thats needed to put him away for ever.

  • Comment number 30.

    Mark Urban:

    International justice has little chance of being free from politics!


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