This a guest post by Marko Attila Hoare.
The explanation of the background to this case is complex but necessary. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has had a bumpy journey since its foundation in 1993. It has long been condemned by Serb and to a lesser extent Croat nationalists, as well as by left-wing and right-wing hardliners in the West, as a political court set up to serve the interests of the Great Powers. But until recently, it has been supported by liberals in the former Yugoslavia and in the West and beyond, as a positive and necessary exercise in international justice – albeit one that has not produced very satisfactory results. In recent months, however, a realignment has taken place: former supporters of the ICTY have begun to condemn it in the same ‘anti-imperialist’ terms used by the nationalists, and to present its judgements as the work of Great Power intrigue. Their anger has focused above all on the figure of Judge Theodor Meron, President of the ICTY. Meron is a Polish Jew by birth and a Holocaust survivor, who emigrated to Israel, was educated at the University of Jerusalem, and served as legal advisor to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada and to the UN, before emigrating to the US. Meron is no Zionist hawk; in 1967, he wrote a memo for Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol advising against the building of settlements in the newly occupied West Bank and Golan Heights. Yet with a sad inevitability, his Jewish and Israeli background have taken on a sinister prominence in the current campaign against him.
As the ICTY is not a kangaroo court, it naturally has acquitted some of its defendants, including some high-profile suspects such as former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, former Bosnian army commander Sefer Halilovic and Bosnian commander in Srebrenica Naser Oric, as well as Miroslav Radic, a Yugoslav army officer accused over the 1991 massacre of Croats at Vukovar hospital. These acquittals excited varying degrees of anger in the former Yugoslavia, but relatively little controversy in the West. However, this began to change in November of last year, when the ICTY Appeals Chamber – a five-judge body presided over by Meron – overturned the convictions of the two Croatian commanders, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, for war-crimes against Serbs during Croatia’s Operation Storm in 1995. This was immediately followed by the acquittal of the former Kosovo Albanian rebel commander Ramush Haradinaj by the ICTY Trial Chamber.
These acquittals were naturally denounced by Serbia’s leaders, including its president and prime minister, as evidence of the ICTY’s political or ‘anti-Serb’ character. Vuk Jeremic, the Serbian statesman then serving as president of the UN General Assembly, responded to the Gotovina-Markac acquittals by summoning a special session at the General Assembly to examine the ICTY’s record, in a naked attempt to undermine it. Such behaviour from Serbian politicians was par for the course. Yet on this occasion, they were prominently joined by pundits in the West – not only those who had long accused the ICTY of being an anti-Serb institution, but also others who were angry at the acquittals for overturning their favoured narrative, according to which Croatia had been just as guilty as Serbia of ethnic cleansing and war-crimes.
The Gotovina-Markac acquittals thereby united mainstream liberal Western commentators and Serb nationalists in condemnation of the ICTY under Meron’s leadership. Bizarrely, these critics were then joined by some Bosnians (particularly Bosniaks – Bosnian Muslims) and friends of Bosnia, after the Appeals Chamber in February 2013 overturned the conviction of Momcilo Perisic, former Yugoslav Army Chief of Staff, for aiding and abetting Bosnian Serb crimes at Sarajevo and Srebrenica. The ICTY’s already shaky reputation among Bosniaks was then further grievously damaged by the ICTY Trial Chamber’s acquittal in May of this year of two senior officials of the Serbian interior ministry, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, for war-crimes in Croatia and Bosnia. The acquittals of Perisic, Stanisic and Simatovic mean that no official of Serbia has been found guilty by the ICTY of war-crimes in Bosnia. For many Bosniaks and others, joining the anti-Meron chorus became irresistible.
From this diverse alliance against Meron and the ICTY, a narrative has emerged: the acquittals form part of a sinister pattern. Meron is the puppet-master who has manipulated other judges into securing the acquittals. Even though he was only one judge among five in the Appeals Chambers that acquitted first Gotovina and Markac, then Perisic, and even though he was not even a member of the Trial Chambers that acquitted Haradinaj, Stanisic and Simatovic, Meron has nevertheless been imbued with the power to manipulate his fellow judges into doing his bidding. He is said to be doing this at the bidding of the United States, which allegedly fears the consequence for its own soldiers and officials of senior Serbian and Croatian war criminals being convicted. The Wikileaks cables have been cited to demonstrate Meron’s connection with the official US – even though the contents of the cables do not provide any evidence that he followed US policy [http://www.ifimes.org/en/researches/ictymeronization-of-our-future/]. Facts that go against the Meron conspiracy theory have been brushed aside: the fact that, far from seeking to sabotage the ICTY, the US has long been its strongest supporter in the international community; the fact that under Meron’s presidency, the ICTY has also recently secured key convictions, including of senior Bosnian Serb intelligence officer Zdravko Tolimir, and of six senior Bosnian Croat officials. Most recently, Meron presided over the Appeals Chamber judgement that reinstated one charge of genocide against Radovan Karadzic.
In the absence of any evidence to support either aspect of the conspiracy theory – that Meron manipulated his fellow judges to secure acquittals, and that he did so at the bidding of the US – his critics were delighted when another senior judge at the ICTY, Frederik Harhoff, wrote what was effectively an open letter (Danish original), (imperfect English translation), dated 6 June and emailed to 56 friends and colleagues, apparently confirming it. Citing the acquittals – of Gotovina, Markac, Perisic, Stanisic and Simatovic – Harhoff wrote:
‘You would think that the military establishment in leading states (such as USA and Israel) felt that the courts in practice were getting too close to the military commanders’ responsibilities.’
Thus, in an astonishing non sequitur, not just the world’s superpower, but Israel made an appearance as the guilty party responsible for the acquittals. Harhoff continued:
‘Have any American or Israeli officials ever exerted pressure on the American presiding judge (the presiding judge for the court that is) to ensure a change of direction? We will probably never know. But reports of the same American presiding judge’s tenacious pressure on his colleagues in the Gotovina – Perisic case makes you think he was determined to achieve an acquittal – and especially that he was lucky enough to convince the elderly Turkish judge to change his mind at the last minute. Both judgements then became majority judgements 3 -2.’
Thus, Harhoff again implied Israel was behind the acquittals, and linked it specifically to the Jewish, formerly Israeli presiding judge, Theodor Meron, whom he accused of ‘tenacious pressure on his colleagues’. Harhoff’s claims have been thoroughly deconstructed and exploded, in particular by legal experts Luka Misetic and Bogdan Ivanisevic*
but to summarise: he admitted that ‘we will probably never know’ if his claims are accurate, in other words that he has no evidence to support them; his grasp of his facts is so weak that he wrongly claimed that Perisic was acquitted by a 3-2 majority in the Appeals Chamber, when it was actually 4-1; and he portrayed Meron as manipulating the ‘elderly Turkish judge’ Mehmet Güney, even though the latter, born in 1936, was six years younger than Meron himself, who was born in 1930.
Turning to Stanisic and Simatovic, who were acquitted by a Trial Chamber that was presided over by Dutch judge Alphons Orie and of which Meron was not even a member, Harhoff continued:
‘Was Orie under pressure from the American presiding judge [Meron] ? It appears so! Rumour from the corridors has it that the presiding judge demanded that the judgement against the two defendants absolutely had to be delivered last Thursday – without the three judges in the premium authority having had time to discuss the defence properly – so that the presiding judge’s promise to the UN Security Council could be met.’
Naturally, Harhoff did not suggest that the Dutch judge acquitted Stanisic and Simatovic on orders from the Netherlands. No, he suggested that the Dutch judge acquitted them ‘under pressure from the American presiding judge’ – a Jew and former Israeli official who was not even on the panel. And Harhoff based these conclusions on nothing more than ‘rumour from the corridors’.
Harhoff was the first of Meron’s critics explicitly to play the Israeli card. Following the acquittal of Perisic, Dzenana Karup-Drusko, editor-in-chief of the leading Bosnian news magazine BH Dani, had published a critique of Meron, whom she described as ‘an American of Jewish extraction’, whose verdict established a precedent meaning that ‘it was now almost impossible to indict almost any commander of NATO, or of the Russian or Israeli army, for example’. But Karup-Drusko did not suggest that Meron was acting at the behest of Israel. Nor did she portray him as a puppet-master manipulating the other ICTY judges. Harhoff therefore broke new ground.
Harhoff’s aspersions against the reputations of his colleagues – not just Meron, but Orie, Güney and by implication all those involved in the acquittals – although wholly unsubstantiated by any actual evidence, then became the basis for an article in the New York Times by Marlise Simons on 14 June, which claimed they ‘raised serious questions about the credibility of the court’, and concluded that ‘Judge Harhoff’s letter, which echoes protests by many international experts, seems likely to add a fresh bruise to the tribunal’s reputation.’ A few days later, Rwanda used Harhoff’s assault on Meron to demand the latter’s resignation, since it was unhappy with the role he had played in the ICTY’s sister body, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in acquitting or reducing the sentences of some Hutu-extremist prisoners. The Rwandan newspaper New Times claimed on 20 June that ‘a confidential letter by a Danish judge, Frederik Harhoff that leaked to the media’, revealed that the ‘embattled’ Meron had ‘exerted “persistent and intense” pressure on his fellow judges to allow suspects go free.’
Also on 20 June, a petition was published by prominent Bosnian intellectuals and activists directed at Meron, stating:
‘Following the letter by your colleague Judge Frederik Harhoff, we, the war crime victims in BiH, consider it your moral obligation to tender your resignation from all of the functions performed by yourself in the ICTY… You, Mr. Meron, have misused your position by influencing your colleagues, and thereby you have cruelly violated the Statute of the Tribunal, the implementation of which exactly you were to supervise, and the disrespect of which by your colleagues also you were to sanction. Therefore, we find it your moral duty, moreover as a Holocaust victim, to leave the Hague Tribunal.’
On 25 June, an open letter signed by well over a hundred individuals and NGOs, either from the Yugoslavia or specialising in it was submitted to UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, claimed that the
‘general public in the former Yugoslavia and particularly those in communities that were affected by war, view Judge Harhoff’s allegations as evidence of a mockery of justice by the most important UN tribunal’, and urged Ban ‘to use your authority to order a prompt and thorough inquiry, to establish beyond doubt if there has been a violation of articles 12 and 13 of the ICTY Statute, which guarantees the independence, impartiality, integrity and high moral character of judges serving at the ICTY.’
Thus, Harhoff’s rumour had quickly hardened into the mainstream version of events, and was providing ammunition for those with an interest in bringing Meron down. Nor did the story go unnoticed by anti-Zionist critics of Israel. Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss took Harhoff’s claims at face value, arguing ‘Is this the US imperial state or the Israel lobby at work? My suspicion is of course the Israel lobby’. Alison Weir of Intifada – Voice of Palestine interpreted the Simons article rather freely when she wrote that
‘The New York Times reports that an Israeli diplomat turned U.S. citizen – and now president of the war crimes tribunal at the Hague – has been pressuring the court to acquit officials accused of war crimes.’
The moral of this story is: if you want to create your own conspiracy theory that other people will believe but which isn’t supported by any evidence, it really helps if the person you finger as the leading villain happens to be a Jew. Most members of the anti-Meron campaign are neither anti-Semites nor motivated by anti-Semitism; perhaps none of them are. Many if not most of them are motivated by fully justified outrage at the meagre results of the ICTY and a principled desire to see justice served. Yet they are basing their campaign on allegations, by Judge Harhoff, that at the very least feed off familiar anti-Semitic themes of alleged Jewish power and manipulative behaviour; themes that strike a chord among the wider public, which explains the vibrancy of the campaign. If it does not already, this is something that should seriously concern them.
*Bogdan Ivanisevic’s deconstruction of Harhoff’s letter appeared on his Facebook page; the link in this article is to his earlier defence of Meron.
Marko Attila Hoare is a Reader at Kingston University specialising in the history of South East Europe. He is the author of four books: The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: A History (Hurst, London, 2013); The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day (Saqi, London, 2007); Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006); and How Bosnia Armed (Saqi, London, 2004). He is currently working on a history of modern Serbia.