Argument: Bosnian Serbs fought legitimately in Bosnian civil war


John Laughland. “The Plight of the Bosnian Serbs”. The Brussels Journal. 23 July 2008 – The arrest of Radovan Karadzic in Serbia on Tuesday has provided yet another occasion for all the tired old propaganda about the Balkans wars to be taken out of the cupboard and given one last airing. In particular, the war is presented as one between a Serb aggressor and an innocent victim, the Bosnian Muslims, and the former is accused of practising genocide against the latter. Even if one accepts that crimes against humanity were committed during the Balkan wars, it should be obvious that both these claims are absurd.

First, the Serbs were no more the aggressors in the Bosnian civil war than Abraham Lincoln was an aggressor in the American Civil War. The Yugoslav army was in place all over Bosnia-Herzegovina because that republic was part of Yugoslavia. Bosnian Muslims (like Croats) left the army in droves and set up their own militia instead, as part of their drive for independence from Belgrade. This meant that the Yugoslav army lost its previous strongly multiethnic character and became largely Serb. It did not mean that Serb forces entered the territory of Bosnia, or even that the Serbs attacked the hapless Bosnian Muslims.

The accusation of aggression is intended to introduce by the back door an allegation which in fact has vanished from modern international criminal justice. Although the crime of waging an aggressive war was pronounced to be the supreme international crime at Nuremberg, it has been dropped from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia which will presumably try Karadzic once he is extradited to The Hague, and even the new International Criminal Court (also in The Hague) does not for the time being have jurisdiction over it.

The accusation has the effect of condemning the Bosnian Serb war effort at its very origins (in terms of ius ad bellum) independently of any condemnation for the way the war was fought (ius in bello). In fact, the Bosnian Serb war effort was no more or less legitimate than the Bosnian Muslim war effort. The Muslims wanted to secede from Yugoslavia (and were egged on to do this by the Americans and the Europeans) while the Bosnian Serbs wanted to stay in Yugoslavia. It was as simple as that.

In my view, it is not possible to adjudicate such matters using the criminal law since, as political questions, they transcend it. But the fact that the Muslims blatantly cheated by holding the vote on an independence referendum at 3 a.m. after the Bosnian Serb deputies in the Bosnian parliament had all been told to go home, and the fact that the Bosnian Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, remained in office throughout 1992 long after his term had expired and long after he should have handed over to a Serb, meant that the Bosnian Serbs had excellent grounds for believing that the Bosnian Muslim secession was quite simply a coup d’état.

In any case, once the Muslims had seized power in Sarajevo, the Bosnian Serbs sought not to conquer the whole republic but instead simply to fight for the secession of their territories from Muslim control. Of course atrocities were committed against civilians during this period, especially ethnic cleansing. But the same phenomenon is observed, I believe, and by definition, in every single war in which a new state is created, whether it is the creation of Pakistan in 1947 or the creation in 1974 of what later became the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. If the Muslims had the right unilaterally to secede from Yugoslavia, why should the Bosnian Serbs not have had the right unilaterally to secede from the new state of Bosnia-Herzegovina which had never before existed and a state, and to which the Bosnian Serbs had no loyalty whatever?