It's sick to ignore our part
by Hugo Young
When the Nazi high command were in the dock at Nuremberg, there was no ambiguity about their relationship with the prosecutors who put them there. This was a trial for war crimes of unspeakable atrocity and unprecedented scale launched against people to whom we, the winners, had never truckled. Good and bad were in different camps, and always had been. A grand statement of international law emerged. The process was morally and legally unimpeachable. It was very widely recognised as producing not victors' justice, but justice.
The trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague is different. Especially it is politically different. Milosevic and his surprisingly large army of defenders are making much of victors' justice. They note the identity of the judges and the sources of the court's massive funding, about $500m, all being closely connected with the NATO countries that finally forced Milosevic out of power. These, and certain procedural rules the old monster complains about, may turn out to spoil the purity of the process as perceived around the world. At least two years must pass before we see how it has worked.
What might strike others is the sheer capriciousness of what is going on. For nothing made it unambiguously obvious that Milosevic, and hardly any other members of other Balkan high commands, should end up here. If Milosevic had not made the fatal error of going into Kosovo, at a time when American and European leaders were finally geared for action against him, there's every chance that the crimes for which he is being indicted, including those in Croatia and Bosnia, would remain untried. He himself might even still be in power, courted by some of the very countries now putting him on trial. The same could not have been said of Herman Goering.
The Hague tribunal is not wrong or bad. God knows, the evidence behind the indictments against Milosevic as occupying a command position in thousands of murders sounds strong enough. But there's something sick about the veiling of history that is so neatly going on. Especially British history. For the British history of the middle 1990s, under the Major government, was rather precisely designed to ensure that this trial should not happen. It was in this period that Douglas Hurd made his famous statement about Britain ‘punching above her weight’. The punch we delivered, with more potency than at any time in recent decades, was to ensure that no body of world power, including American power, should assemble to remove the butcher Milosevic.
Britain built an entire policy on the position that Milosevic and the Serbs were not uniquely, or even specially, guilty for the Balkan bloodbaths. Yugoslavs were ‘all impossible people... all as bad as each other,’ said Lord Carrington, an early would-be peacemaker. The Bosnian leader, Alija Izetbegovic, ‘was a dreadful little man’. ‘Horrendous acts are being carried out by all sides,’ said the armed forces minister of the day. Michael Ancram said everyone ‘was committing appalling atrocities against each other’, and Hurd agreed. ‘Three warring factions’ was the only way the government was willing to see Croats, Bosnians and Serbs. For four years, 1991-95, the linchpin of British policy was to say that the man now in the dock in the Hague was not worse than anyone else: and because he was someone they could ‘deal’ with, was better, worth protecting.
The story is told in a work that deserved more recognition than it got. Unfinest Hour, by Brendan Simms (Allen Lane Penguin Press), is the most devastating account of any British foreign policy that has appeared in recent years. In careful and relentless detail, the Cambridge historian takes apart the documented evidence of a British error that has been too swiftly forgotten.
On the basis of an analysis that refused to recognise Milosevic's particular culpability, the Brits mobilised every rhetorical argument to prevent his major enemy, the Bosnians, from being defended. Vast diplomatic energy was poured into ensuring they were not armed. Major and co were willing to put both the Anglo- American relationship and the credibility of Nato itself at risk, rather than admit that Serb atrocities required a policy that did not insist on being even-handed. A great apparatus of British politicians, soldiers and advisers consorted to elevate this stance - ‘aggressively lobbying against any response to ethnic cleansing,’ Simms quotes an American official saying - above every wider national interest.
In this policy, the appeasement of Milosevic played a crucial part. He was a man we could do business with. ‘He is heading towards leading Serbia back into the European family. I have no doubt of that,’ said Lord Owen, another would-be peacemaker, in 1993. In his memoirs, Owen brings his considerable capacity for righteous scorn to bear against those who were obsessed with ‘getting Milosevic’. After the Bosnian war, Hurd, now in the private sector, still believed Milosevic could be persuaded to go straight, and to that end visited Belgrade to urge him to let British business privatise his utilities: in fact, he gave the job to Italians.
The British military assessment was as faulty as the political. London regularly contended that any military intervention to save the Bosnians would require half a million soldiers. The beginning of a third world war was intimated. In the end, America was not much better with Milosevic. Washington too spent four years assuming they could deal with him. But before that, they finally overcame British resistance, and with a bombing campaign and minor military presence, soon exposed how much of Milosevic's position was based on sheer bluff, whether as to the fighting capacities of the Serb army or the supposition, much discussed in the Foreign Office, that he was getting ready to annex Bulgaria and Hungary.
When he went into Kosovo, a new British government was in power. Its reaction was different from Major's. In a national role-reversal, Mr Blair became the leader who urged Clinton to overcome his political anxieties and make a military commitment, to which, in less than three months, Milosevic suddenly surrendered.
The Hague became, eventually, his next stop. If he's jailed for the rest of his life, which seems likely, there will be little weeping outside. He oversaw, at varying stages of remove, ethnic barbarities on a huge scale. Not much sympathy is worth expending on those trying to quibble their way towards damnation of the court's legitimacy.
But is the accused uniquely responsible for what happened? At Nuremberg it would have been hard to claim that the victorious allies, once the Chamberlain policy was abandoned, were at any stage complicit in the crimes on trial. You can't quite say the same about Yugoslavia between '91 and '95. However guilty Milosevic is found, the political narrative throws up its own culprits, whose apologias, fairly laid out by Dr Simms, serve mainly to remind one that courtrooms do not always deliver a true judgment of history.
This comment was published in The Guardian (London), 14 February 2002