Better to halt mass murder than to clean it up later

MOST of the weekend comment on Slobodan Milosevic’s death asserted that he thus cheated justice, escaping an inevitable verdict of guilt at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. There is an alternative view, however, that Milosevic’s exit enables justice to escape a hideous embarrassment. The prisoner was likely to be acquitted on a substantial number of the charges against him.

By Max Hastings

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Published: Thu 16 Mar 2006, 9:39 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:44 PM

Few reasonable people doubt Milosevic’s complicity in tens of thousands of deaths. He started four wars, all of which he lost. His ruthless ambition to rule a Greater Serbia brought untold suffering to millions. Yet proving Milosevic’s direct involvement, finding his fingerprints on a smoking gun, turned out to be harder than prosecutors at The Hague anticipated. Most of the worst atrocities were carried out by Bosnian Serbs or Serbs in Kosovo. Documentary evidence of a direct link between Milosevic and the killers was sparse or non-existent. If the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic had been in the dock, there would have been little difficulty, for both personally orchestrated years of massacre. Milosevic, however, could show that he had difficulty in controlling them. Of course he himself was also guilty as hell, but circumstances were shrouded in confusion, of a kind familiar to anyone who has ever studied war crimes trials.

If a man or woman at the bottom of a killing chain is caught, it is relatively easy to convict them. It is much more difficult to attribute forensic responsibility to those at the top. I have just been researching 1945 Japanese war crimes trials. That the Japanese did terrible things during the World War II was never in doubt. There is a good argument, however, that some Japanese generals were unjustly executed. Here, I am offering no comparison with Milosevic, merely making a point about the difficulty of attributing responsibility for acts committed in the course of wars.

Most mass murderers escape justice. Uganda’s Idi Amin lived out a comfortable retirement in Saudi Arabia. Pol Pot and Papa Doc died in their beds. Nearer to home General Franco not only prospered into old age, but remains highly regarded in European rightwing circles, as is General Pinochet. If a killer entertains shrewdly during his years of office, has a great power sponsor or confines himself to massacring non-white people, he is unlikely to end up at The Hague.

It seems more useful to examine ways of preventing people like Milosevic killing people than trying them afterwards for doing so. In the west, there is today a climate of bitter recrimination, about our failure effectively to act in the 1990s, to halt the ethnic struggle that persisted for five years in the former Yugoslavia. I should declare a sort of interest, because I was editing the Daily Telegraph at the time. I supported the UK foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, in his reluctance to intervene, given the refusal of President Clinton to send US troops. After it was all over, when Douglas and I were staying in the same holiday house in France, he said suddenly: "I hope that history does not judge that it was easier than it seemed to us at the time, to act in the Balkans."

Almost every night amid the horrors of Sarajevo, Srebrenica and the rest, reporters on the spot urged passionately: "something must be done". Yet national governments were still in hopeless confusion about the notion of "humanitarian intervention". Not much progress has been made since to define new rules about what should be done and who should do it in societies where internal factions commit unspeakable crimes against each other.

Even Britain’s critics over Bosnia must concede that this country and France were the only nations belatedly willing to send troops to fight. Other countries dispatched soldiers under the UN flag, but were unwilling to allow them to fulfil any combat function. British and American rightwingers wanted to back Croatia, yet the Croats had their own shocking record of massacre. When Nato gave its support to the Albanians in Kosovo, after the Serbian defeat the Kosovo Liberation Army inflicted a dreadful revenge on Serbian residents.

There were few "good guys" either in Yugoslavia or in the western capitals that addressed this tragedy. Since the 1996 Dayton accords, international peacekeepers in Bosnia have prevented mass killings, but done nothing to bring closer a viable society. Ethnic strife would resume immediately if foreign troops were removed. In his book The Balkans, Misha Glenny argues that the West’s policy failure lies in neglect of the region, except at moments of bloodshed. In the Balkans, the UN or Nato can periodically be persuaded to send troops if slaughter is making headlines, but lacks effective machinery for civil and economic follow-up.

Having entered all these caveats about the past, however, I must join the penitents. Those of us who opposed military involvement in early-1990s Yugoslavia were probably wrong. The fact that it was difficult to do something should not have become an excuse for doing nothing. If we want to stop the Milosevics of the future, what will be needed are credible, muscular military actions, not gestures, and there is not a shred of evidence that these will be forthcoming. It was futile to send Dutch troops in UN berets to Srebenica when they then refused to fight. It is ridiculous to send Nato forces to Afghanistan in numbers so small that there is no prospect of them preventing its descent into chaos.

If we are serious about preventing failed states from imploding, or murderous nationalists like Milosevic from presiding over slaughters of the innocent, it will be necessary to commit large numbers of Nato or UN troops, accepting orders from an international commander rather than from their own governments, willing to risk their own lives and shooting to kill when necessary. Anything less represents mere gesture politics to appease sentimental TV viewers. It also promises lots more Sarajevos and lots more Milosevics. We need to think much harder about what is needed to prevent mass murder, rather than congratulate ourselves on Hague trials of a few token perpetrators afterwards.

Veteran British journalist and author Max Hastings writes a weekly column in The Guardian

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