The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is reconsidering its indictment against a man falsely accused of overseeing war crimes. Normally, this would be a cause for celebration. Yet a recent editorial, “Fair Play in the Balkans,” in the Toronto National Post calls for fugitive Croatian Gen. Ante Gotovina to be handed over to The Hague tribunal to face charges of war crimes for the 1995 military operation that ended the Croatian-Serbian war. “he’s been allowed to run free long enough.” the editorial concludes.
Gen. Gotovina was indicted in June 2001 by the prosecutor’s office at The Hague for “command responsibility” over an August 1995 military operation — known as Operation Storm — in which Croatia regained the territories that had been annexed by rebel Serbs loyal to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. In the face of the lightning Croatian offensive, 150,000 ethnic Serbs fled the military onslaught. Rather than being “the largest single act of ethnic cleansing of all the Balkan wars between 1991 and 1995,” as the editorial asserts, the operation was a decisive victory for the forces of civilized decency against the barbarism unleashed by Mr. Milosevic’s Serbian marauders in Croatia and Bosnia.
By the summer of 1995, Mr. Milosevic was on the verge of achieving his genocidal project of an ethnically pure “Greater Serbia.” Serbian paramilitaries had annexed over one-third of Croatia, in which 180,000 Croats had been ethnically cleansed and nearly 20,000 killed. In Bosnia, Mr. Milosevic’s forces had carved out over 70 percent of the country’s territories, ethnically cleansing over a million Muslims and Croats and murdering nearly 200,000. In July 1995, Serbian troops committed the greatest massacre in Europe since the end of World War II: more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were butchered at Srebrenica. Later that month, Serbian paramilitaries encircled Bihac and began shelling the city relentlessly. Hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslim refugees were trapped inside the city.
In order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in neighboring Bosnia, the Clinton administration gave Zagreb the green light to launch a sweeping military offensive. Washington rightly viewed Croatia as providing the strategic balance of power that would finally put an end to Mr. Milosevic’s rampage. The United States played a pivotal role in the operation, supplying Croatian forces with military and intelligence assistance such as the use of unmanned drones to pinpoint Serbian positions on the ground. Operation Storm not only restored Croatia’s territorial integrity, but it also prevented a Srebrenica-style massacre from occurring in Bihac. Gen. Gotovina’s troops smashed the Serbian lines encircling the city, causing Mr. Milosevic’s forces to retreat to their stronghold of Banja Luka.
Gen. Gotovina is not a war criminal. Instead, he is a hero who finally accomplished what the United Nations and Western diplomacy had failed to do after nearly four years of bloodshed following the dissolution of Yugoslavia: Deliver a fatal blow to Mr. Milosevic’s revanchist ambitions.
It now seems that the tribunal is also finally coming around to that same conclusion. In the prosecution testimony in the Milosevic trial at The Hague, overwhelming evidence has emerged that the former dictator sought to consolidate his grip over large chunks of Bosnia and Kosovo by repopulating those areas with the Serbs from the “Krajina” region in Croatia. Milan Babic, one of the Krajina’s political leaders, testified that the Croatian Serb leadership gave the orders to withdraw the military and civilian populations in the Serbian areas several days prior to the commencement of Operation Storm.
Rather than being the victims of an ethnic-cleansing campaign by Gen. Gotovina’s forces, the mass expulsion of the Krajina Serbs was ordered by Mr. Milosevic before the operation began. Belgrade ultimately viewed the Serbian rebels in Croatia as strategically peripheral to its more vital conquests in Bosnia and to rolling back the large Albanian majority in Kosovo. The final responsibility for the ethnic cleansing of the Krajina Serbs rests with Mr. Milosevic, not Gen. Gotovina.
This explains why the tribunal is now on the verge of dropping the Gotovina indictment. Tribunal officials confess in private that the case against the Croatian general is “being reconsidered” because it is weak and based mostly on “circumstantial evidence” — evidence that is being peeled away on a daily basis as former Croatian Serb officials point to Belgrade’s central role in the decision to evacuate the civilian populations from the Krajina (nearly 100,000 Serbs have since returned to Croatia).
Most of the other crimes committed during the operation — the murder of 500 civilians, the looting of property and the burning of 40,000 homes and barns — were done by returning civilians and roving Croatian paramilitaries seeking revenge, not by the Croatian army. The tribunal has also learned that nearly 300 of the Croatian soldiers who did commit isolated atrocities during the operation were ordered by Gen. Gotovina to be tried by military tribunals and sentenced to prison terms.
The Gotovina indictment was politically motivated from the outset. The Hague tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, sought a Croatian scapegoat to offset charges that her office was being “biased” against the Serbs. Mrs. Del Ponte believed she had her man in Gen. Gotovina. She is now reaping the bitter fruits of that decision.
It is natural that tribunal prosecutors and some Canadian editorial writers are demanding that a high-ranking official pay for the fate that befell the Krajina Serbs. Yet this should not be done at the expense of an innocent man, who is to be sold down the river in order to satisfy some perverse moral calculus that seeks to rewrite the history of the Balkan wars so that no group or individual is excessively blamed for the horrors that were committed. One individual does deserve to be blamed. He is Slobodan Milosevic.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is an assistant national editor at The Washington Times. He is writing a book on the Croatian-Serbian conflict in the former Yugoslavia.