We saw Milosevic as a solution
by Brendan Simms
At first sight, the international campaign against Slobodan Miloševiƒ seems a very British affair. Both the presiding judge, Richard May, and the co-prosecutor, Geoffrey Nice QC are Britons. It was a British general, Sir Rupert Smith, who was the nemesis of Miloševiƒ's erstwhile Bosnian Serb proxies
around Sarajevo in 1995. British troops with the international force in Bosnia have been the most active in their pursuit of indicted war criminals. And, of course, it was the government of Tony Blair which prosecuted the war over Kosovo with such determination.
It was not always thus. When the idea of an international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was first mooted, Britain was ambivalent. In some respects, British reservations were reasonable. At Nuremberg, British lawyers had been concerned about questions of precedent, evidence and fairness; they were also wary of the penchant for seeking legal solutions to political problems. But in 1992-3 British obstructionism went well beyond such considerations. At almost every stage of its gestation at the UN, British diplomats tried to stifle or neuter the war crimes tribunal. Above all, Britain did all it could to delay the appointment of an activist chief prosecutor. When the United States, many Muslim countries and the non-aligned states proposed Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian-American professor of law at DePaul University near Chicago, Britain objected and suggested John Duncan Lowe, a Scottish lawyer instead.
The reason for this approach is to be found not in geopolitical conspiracy theories, or sordid financial dealings. Rather, Britain feared that the operation of the war crimes tribunal would cut across her strategy for a negotiated settlement in Bosnia, if necessary at the expense of justice. This
was openly admitted by the Minister of State in the Foreign Office, Douglas Hogg, who observed in February 1993 that: 'If the authority - the responsibility - for those crimes goes as high as I expect, we must ask ourselves what is the priority: is it to bring people to trial or is it to make peace?' Likewise, one senior diplomat at the British mission to the UN recalled that: 'underlying [attitudes on the tribunal] was a general feeling that at some stage we were going to have to talk to the Serbs. It wasn't going to help very much if all of them were going to be in fear of arrest at The Hague.'
These concerns were shared by the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Owen, charged by the EU with mediating an overall settlement. He developed something of a Miloševiƒ fixation. 'The key as always,' he told the EU Foreign Ministers at the height of the war in 1994, 'is Miloševiƒ.' He praised Miloševiƒ as a man who 'lives in the real world', a figure who 'is prepared to take on the hard right... and is heading towards leading Serbia back into the European family'. Owen's approach was a 'realistic' one of using the Serbian leader to coerce the Bosnian Serbs into an agreement. By contrast, he rebuked the Americans for being 'obsessed with 'getting Miloševiƒ rather than using his influence for our purposes'. One US diplomat observed that Owen was 'basically advocating immunity for Miloševiƒ and [Radovan] Karadñiƒ.'
British attempts to sabotage US and NATO military intervention on behalf of the Bosnian government failed spectacularly in the summer and autumn of 1995. But at the same time the US negotiator Richard Holbrooke adopted as his own the longstanding British strategy of coopting Miloševiƒ for the peace process. This culminated in the Dayton agreement of 1995. The result was perhaps not an explicit deal, but certainly an implicit understanding that Miloševiƒ would not be prosecuted. Otherwise Miloševiƒ's cavalier recognition of the tribunal at Dayton - now rescinded - and his unfulfilled promise to deliver indicted war criminals to The Hague make no sense. Miloševiƒ must have felt that his role in winding up the war, and as a legitimate and sought-after interlocutor, had put him in good standing. He would have been further encouraged by the fact that the former Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and Pauline Neville-Jones, who had attended Dayton as political director of the Foreign Office, came to Belgrade a year later in pursuit of a lucrative contract to advise on the privatization of Serbian utilities. It was only in 1998-9 that the penny finally dropped that Miloševiƒ was the main cause of instability in the Balkans, not part of the solution.
Today some of the roles are reversed. Under Labour, Britain played a crucial role in defeating Miloševiƒ, and remained firm when President Clinton appeared to wobble; it is US rather than British foot-dragging which now impedes the pursuit of war criminals in Bosnia; and it is Britain which wholeheartedly supports a permanent international criminal court over US objections. Yet
without the Americans, there would have been no tribunal in the first place. Without the Americans, the Bosnian Serbs would never have been defeated in 1995, and without American firepower the coalition would never have prevailed in Kosovo. To that extent humanitarian intervention and international stability relies on a large degree of US military assertiveness. An international criminal court which placed US commanders at the mercy of third worldist axe-grinders would have killed any appetite to subdue Miloševiƒ at birth. It is easy to sneer at victors' justice, but without victory there would have been no justice at all.
Dr Brendan Simms is a lecturer at the Centre for International Studies, University of Cambridge and author of Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia, Allen Lane The Penguin Press, London 2001. He is a trustee of The Bosnian Institute. This article appeared in The Observer, 17 February 2002.