International Politics

The Search for the Balkan War Criminals – a Frontline Club Event with Julian Borger, by Rachel Nicholson


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Julian Borger

Julian Borger’s The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for the Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt is a historical account – which ‘reads like a thriller’ – of the largest manhunt in history since World War II. Author and journalist Adam Lebor chaired the Frontline Club’s panel discussion about Borger’s book, which included Borger himself (also The Guardian’s world affairs editor);  Milan Dinić, a Serbian journalist who assisted Borger with the book; Philippe Sands, lawyer and professor of International Law at UCL, and Kemal Pervanic – a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp currently working on community reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Borger’s recently published work details how the manhunt in the Balkans began, and the role of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Yet the discussion went far beyond the book itself to ask questions of what justice looks like, the failure or success of the ICTY, and what role criminal tribunals serve. As Sands put it, the book shows the mechanics of the system – now we need to ask questions of utility.

When asked why he chose to write The Butcher’s Trail, Borger said he wanted to chronicle a rare story of a successful UN mission. Dinić added that the work captures ‘what really happened,’ a crucial task in an area where different versions of the war and its effects are taught by different sides. Both Dinić and Pervanic spoke about the differing narratives and historical memories within Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. ‘We haven’t got a lot of memory,’ Pervanic argued, ‘We have a lot of myths.’ Borger’s book thus creates a well-researched, historical record, capturing the political motivations behind the manhunt and the individuals who catalyzed the action. In 1997, immediately after the war, NATO – and largely the United States – didn’t support the manhunt as it risked lives, while the International Community feared it would jeopardize the peace created at Dayton. It was thus in the hands of a few ‘mavericks’ – to use Borger’s term – to defy authority and instigate the process. Among this group were a Polish special forces operation, together with Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor for the ICTY, and Jacques Paul Klein, a UN Under-Secretary General.

The involvement of the International Community is, however, complicated – and all the panel members were quick to highlight its failure effectively to bring reconciliation or lasting peace to the region. Though the manhunt may have been successful, discussion quickly turned to the effectiveness of the ICTY itself. ‘What was the point of creating a Yugoslav war crimes tribunal?’ asked Sands. ‘Was it a place to tell stories, was it a place to write history books, was it a place to do justice, was it something different? Was it all of the above?’ Connecting the history of the ICTY and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to the history of the Nuremberg Trials post-WWII, Sands argued that ICTR and ICTY were thrown together ad hoc out of guilt on the part of the International Community – for failing to create a lasting peace in Europe and allowing genocide to happen again.

50275274‘The system is flawed,’ argued Borger, ‘but there is some good.’ For one thing, a historical record has been created and people, in Sands’ opinion, can draw strength and solace from the stories uncovered and recorded by the tribunal. For Pervanic, the tribunal has allowed him to return to his home in Bosnia and, in his opinion, has spurred domestic action. Equally important, argued Borger, is the tribunal’s enabling of victims to face their persecutors, which creates a sense of justice. ‘The world has never been a just place,’ said Pervanic,’ but the tribunal has made it a more just place.’

Why then would 90% of the region – according to Dinić – say the tribunal has failed? On the one hand, justice means different, deeply personal things to different people. On the other, the tribunal, said Borger, hasn’t brought reconciliation to the region. On whether or not a Truth and Reconciliation Commission – as employed in South Africa after apartheid – would have been more effective, Pervanic denied this was the case. Small acts of reconciliation, he said, are happening within communities, but politicians are simply not interested in bringing people together and ‘re-humanizing’ one another. Instead, the conversation is about blame and guilt. Borger called this the ‘cult of exclusive victimization,’ with Dinić adding that there is always a question coming from conflicting parties of ‘What about us?’

Largely, this guilt and blame arises from the language that is and isn’t used with regard to the Balkan wars. The International Community, said Sands, and the International Court of Justice in particular, have created a hierarchy of crimes in which genocide trumps crimes against humanity. It’s become a game of numbers in which countries fight for who’s the biggest victim, rather than seeking to reconcile. While the law attempts to make things black and white, there’s clearly nothing this simple about war, genocide, and victimhood. In the case of the Balkans, though genocide was ruled to have been committed against Bosnian Muslims, Serbia was not found responsible for these acts. Turning to Pervanic, Sands asked him how important it was to him – as a survivor of Omarska – that the word ‘genocide’ be used. ‘It is important because of politics,’ he answered – the term itself would carry more weight with the international community.

The Butcher’s Trail traces a complicated and important history, revealing the involvement – or otherwise – of the International Community and the political motivations that govern criminal tribunals: ultimately, it’s these motivations we must question and pay attention to when discussing both the Balkans and future conflicts. Pervanic is right, language is important, and the ICTY reinforced this. Though reconciliation and justice may not be the task of International Criminal Tribunals, creating an accurate historical record is surely the first step towards healing – and allowing individuals to rise above their personal feelings, to see the bigger picture.


Insight with Julian Borger: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt was part of the ongoing programme of talks, screenings and panel-discussions at London’s Frontline Club.


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