Hague Judge Faults Acquittals of Serb and Croat Commanders

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Niccolo and Donkey
Hague Judge Faults Acquittals of Serb and Croat Commanders

New York Times

Marlise Simons

June 14, 2013

PARIS — A judge at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague has exposed a deep rift at the highest levels of the court in a blistering letter suggesting that the court’s president, an American, pressured other judges into approving the recent acquittals of top Serb and Croat commanders.

The letter from the judge, Frederik Harhoff of Denmark, raised serious questions about the credibility of the court, which was created in 1993 to address the atrocities committed in the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Even before Judge Harhoff’s letter was made public Thursday, in the Danish newspaper Berlingske , the recent acquittals had provoked a storm of complaints from international lawyers, human rights groups and other judges at the court, who claimed in private that the rulings had abruptly rewritten legal standards that had been applied in earlier cases.

Experts say they see a shift in the court toward protecting the interests of the military. “A decade ago, there was a very strong humanitarian message coming out of the tribunal, very concerned with the protection of civilians,” said William Schabas, who teaches law at Middlesex University in London. “It was not concerned with the prerogatives of the military and the police. This message has now been weakened, there is less protection for civilians and human rights.”

Other lawyers agreed that the tribunal, which has pioneered new laws, is sending a new message to other armies: they do not need to be as frightened of international justice as they might have been four or five years ago.

But until now, no judge at the tribunal had openly attributed the apparent change to the court’s current president, Theodor Meron, 83, a longtime legal scholar and judge.

Judge Harhoff’s letter, dated June 6, was e-mailed to 56 lawyers, friends and associates; the newspaper did not say how it obtained a copy. In his letter, Judge Harhoff, 64, who has been on the tribunal since 2007, said that in two cases Judge Meron, a United States citizen who was formerly an Israeli diplomat, applied “tenacious pressure” on his fellow judges in such a way that it “makes you think he was determined to achieve an acquittal.”

“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?” Judge Harhoff asked. “We will probably never know.”

A spokesman at the court declined to comment on the letter. Other judges and lawyers were willing to speak, provided that their names were not used.

By their accounts, a mini-rebellion has been brewing against Judge Meron, prompting some of the 18 judges of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to group around an alternative candidate for the scheduled election for tribunal president this fall. Until now, Judge Meron had been expected to be re-elected.

“I’d say about half the judges are feeling very uncomfortable and prefer to turn to a different candidate,” said a senior court official. The official said he did not believe that American officials had pressured Judge Meron to rule a certain way in any case, “But I believe he wants to cooperate with his government,” the official said. “He’s putting on a lot of pressure and imposing internal deadlines that do not exist.”

The legal dispute that is the focus of Judge Harhoff’s letter and that has led to sharp language in dissents is the degree of responsibility that senior military leaders should bear for war crimes committed by their subordinates.

In earlier cases before the tribunal, a number of military or police officers and politicians were convicted of massacres and other war crimes committed by followers or subordinates on the principle that they had been members of a “joint criminal enterprise.”

In contrast, three Serbian leaders and two Croatian generals who played key roles during the war were acquitted recently because judges argued that the men had not specifically ordered or approved war crimes committed by subordinates.

Judge Meron has led a push for raising the bar for conviction in such cases, prosecutors say, to the point where a conviction has become nearly impossible. Critics say he misjudged the crucial roles played by the high-level accused and has set legal precedents that will protect military commanders in the future.

The United Nations Security Council created the tribunal, a costly endeavor, and has been pressing it for years to speed up work and wind down, with the United States and Russia at the forefront of those efforts.

By early this year, 68 suspects had been sentenced and 18 had been acquitted. But some of the highest ranking wartime leaders have been judged at a time when the tribunal is short-staffed and under continuing pressure to close down.

Today, as the tribunal winds down it work, pressure over time is among the complaints heard from judges’ chambers. Several senior court officials, while declining to discuss individual cases, said judges had been perturbed by unacceptable pressures from Judge Meron to deliver judgments before they were ready.

After the only session to deliberate the acquittal that Judge Meron had drafted in the case of the two Croatian generals, one official said, the judge abruptly declined a request by two dissenting judges for further debate.

In his letter, Judge Harhoff also said that Judge Michele Picard of France was recently rushed unduly and given only four days to write her dissent against the majority decision to acquit two Serbian police chiefs, Jovica Stanisic and Frank Simatovic.

“She was very taken aback by the acquittal and deeply upset about the fast way it had to be handled,” said an official close to the case.

Judge Harhoff’s letter, which echoes protests by many international experts, seems likely to add a fresh bruise to the tribunal’s reputation.

“The latest judgments here have brought before me a deep professional and moral dilemma not previously faced,” he wrote in conclusion. “The worst is the suspicion that some of my colleagues have been behind a shortsighted political pressure that completely changes the premises of my work in my service to wisdom and the law.”
Niccolo and Donkey
Mike President Camacho Angocachi Thomas777 Roland SteamshipTime

This turn in The Hague's decisions is very significant, guys. Croatian generals Gotovina and Markac got off during the appeal simply because the charges against them were so ridiculous and posed a huge threat to any future action by the USA, UK, France, etc. The case against Gotovina rested on 'excessive shelling' during the attack on Knin which began the liberation of occupied Croatia in 1995. The problem was that it was found the shelling done by Croatian artillery had a 95% success rate, with success being measured by shelling within 400 metres of the target. The Brits and Americans only achieved a 90% success rate in Afghanistan and Iraq years after and with better technology. Therefore a precedent would have been set in international law and American and British generals, not to mention politicians, would have been able to have been indicted for war crimes.

This is just one example involved the war crimes trials against Serbs and Croatians at The Hague.

The significance here is that the Americans realized what could result from such judgments and not only put their military legal minds to work (like the 60 page paper coming to Gotovina's defense prior to the appeal), but also inserted Meron to ensure that these judgments would come about in their favour.

What this means is that the Americans, Brits, French, and Israelis were worried about war crimes charges and now that they're fixing things at The Hague, there will be more global war to come.

I have been by no means covering these wars in enough detail to make all the apt comparisons fairly; have the Serbian and Croatian commanders that recently went to trial at the Hague been accused of anything as heinous as, say, the Israelis' dropping of cluster bombs over civilian areas in Lebanon in 2006?

I am sure that there are some scrupulous humanitarians at the Hague (e.g. Harhoff), but I suspect the predominant contingent will be cynics and the trials are essentially for show. I also suspect that in the future hard sentences against relatively light offenses will be forthcoming whenever it suits the interests of the usual suspects.

Niccolo and Donkey
Serbs have been charged with genocide and Croatians and Serbs with massacres, rapes, and ethnic cleansing besides other things.

The main focus here is on command responsibility and how much responsibility those up the chain have for the actions of those under their command even if they didn't issue a command to do something that could be a war crime. This falls within the "Joint Criminal Enterprise' tent which had been used effectively to convict others up until this Israeli American Jew Meron put a stop to such nonsense.

I have little doubt that the Americans would have let these guys on trial hang if precedents weren't set that could come to bite them back in the ass later on.

Do Americans and Israelis have to worry about the Hague court in the near future? When the Israelis carpeted parts of Lebanon with widely condemned cluster bombs, the culpability of commanders, up to national leaders, was indisputable. Yet I don't recall any Israelis going to the Hague.

I agree with your basic point of scuttling possible precedents, especially in light of increasing "fourth generation warfare" conflicts, and in light of ever new weapons like drones and depleted uranium munitions -- wars as waged by Americans and Israelis are bound to get uglier.

Niccolo and Donkey
War crimes tribunals have only been set up for the ex-YU and for various African conflicts. Israel-Palestine hasn't fallen under that for obvious reasons. This doesn't mean that people can't be arrested for war crimes and tried if a specific tribunal hasn't been set up, however.

The problems are twofold though:

1. international law would allow for some serious diplomatic problems in that they would restrict the ability to freely travel for various key figures of administrations. Several countries have stated that they would arrest various Israeli officials for war crimes should they ever set foot on their soil. There are many activists engaged in pushing through laws to ensure that their states arrest men like Dubya or Tony Blair over Iraq, for example.

2. precedents, precedents, precedents.

That's the main takeaway from this. These tribunals have in many cases made even defensive war a war crime (see: original convicction of Gotovina and Markac, overturned on appeals). This simply won't do.

The release of these Serbs and Croats has nothing to do with principle nor altruism. It is simply self-interest.
Niccolo and Donkey
Susan Sontag's son, David Rohde, is adding to the criticism of Justice Meron. Rohde was a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor at the time of the Srebrenica Massacre. He later wrote a book on it.

How International Justice is Being Gutted


^ niccolo and donkey I think you might have David Rohde mixed up with someone else. Rohde appears to be from Maine.

The picture is getting clearer.
Niccolo and Donkey

Ah yes, I mixed him up with David Rieff who also covered Bosnia and who is the son of Sontag.

Above post edited.