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What can international tribunals do when those accused of war crimes occupy a parallel reality?
LONDON, UK — “Instead of being accused of the events in our war, I should be rewarded for all the good things I have done."
Those were the words of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic on opening his defense at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in the Hague on Monday.
They were unsurprising perhaps, but no less jaw-dropping for being so at odds with what actually happened in the country.
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When you flew into Sarajevo during the latter stages of its siege by Bosnian Serb forces, you arrived by military transport plane, human cargo together with relief supplies. The rear loading door would slide down and you were whisked away because Serbian gunners were in place on the far side of the runway to take potshots — or not, depending on their moods.
Visiting journalists were hustled through a warren of sandbags that resembled a World War I trench. You would meet your driver on the far side of the terminal and begin the journey downtown.
A wall of old cargo containers stacked five high lined the road to your right, a defensive wall to prevent the Serbs from overrunning the rest of the city. To the left you could see low-rise apartment houses built for the Winter Olympics less than a decade earlier. The sides facing the airport were exposed, their walls blasted away by Serbian artillery fire. People still lived in those flats, where plastic sheeting provided the only protection from the elements.
Much of the city was scarred, people were scavenging, living without the most basic amenities. Residents braved Serb guns every day to bury yet more bodies in Sarajevo's hillside cemeteries.
"I am a mild man, a tolerant man with great capacity to understand others," Karadzic explained. He did "everything within human power to avoid the war and to reduce the human suffering."
Watch an extract of Karadzic's courtroom performance.
Then, if you have an hour, watch part four of "The Death of Yugoslavia," the definitive documentary history of the war.
If you don't have an hour, skip to the last 90 seconds, when Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, with Karadzic at his side, orders the shelling of civilian Muslim neighborhoods "'til they're on the edge of madness."
In the face of such seeming irrationality, how can jurisprudence — ostensibly a system for rational judging of guilt or innocence and assigning measured and proportionate punishment — hope to function properly? Particularly when judging war crimes and crimes against humanity?
Karadzic wasn’t being simply brazen or cynical on Monday, or, to apply a cliche, banal. Like the other Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders who have appeared before the ICTY — chiefly Slobodan Milosevic and Ratko Mladic — he was demonstrating something else. They have all suffered from an illness that should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
That’s because they inhabit a parallel reality, in which they’re no longer human but become the nation. "L'etat c'est moi" ("I am the state"), said Louis the XIVth, the most absolute of absolute monarchs.
Certain types of dictators live in similar realities, in which their behavior moves beyond human norms. He (always a he) is the state, his actions are no longer human and the responsibility for them are not to be judged by normal standards of right and wrong.
We glimpsed the "I am the State" illness when the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauscescu was overthrown in 1989. As civil unrest was threatening his regime, he appeared on the balcony of the Communist Party Central Committee building in Bucharest. The crowds were hostile. Ceausescu made a speech about pension reform that was interrupted by jeering. A thickset secret policeman suggested he leave the balcony. But his face didn’t express fear. It showed confusion. We were watching what happens when the "I am the State" mental-illness reality is overwhelmed by the normal psychological reality most people inhabit.
Not all dictators succumb to "I am the Statism." Baby Doc Duvalier and Idi Amin knew when the game was over: They fled the countries they’d ruined to live in comfortable exile on money they’d looted. You can call them cynical.
Those who aren't cynical, who succumb to the delusion they’re more than human, who make war on their own people and on others, always overreach. But when they’re defeated, they pose a challenge to international justice.
I'm thinking of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. But also Herman Goering yawning his way through the Nuremberg Trials. “Who are they to judge me?” his behavior suggests he was thinking. “They’re only humans. I’m beyond that.”
So what good does it do to bring before an international tribunal someone who doesn’t inhabit the same reality as judges, prosecutors, witnesses, journalists and the rest of the world?
American domestic courts dealing with defendants with diminished mental capacity because they’re psychotic have a variety of ways to mitigate the circumstance and still pass judgment.
In the Hague, however, there’s no possibility for that, which reinforces the argument of many, too many, on the left who say the court dispenses "victor's justice" — as if those sitting in judgment would have murdered 7000 boys, men and old men at Srebrenica given the same opportunity.
So Karadzic and co. have been able to spin out their alternate versions of reality. Even worse, this week’s Karadzic show and the Milosevic show before it have inflamed partisan passions. Being seen alive in the dock denying their crimes encourages those who blindly follow them.
An incident at an international soccer match Tuesday night provided a reminder. England's under-21 team was in Belgrade to play Serbia's under-21s when Serbian nationalists and players engaged in racist chants and physical violence on the field. Now there are calls for Serbia to be banned from international football.
Not all Serbs are racist ethno-nationalists, but a minority of bullies are. They also inhabit a different reality. Where most people see a man accused of war crimes undergoing due process, something Karadzic’s victims didn’t receive, this minority see a martyr laid low by a world that doesn't understand how the Serbs bravely stood up to the Muslim threat.
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Karadzic's performance raises some troubling questions. What if Muammar Gaddafi had been sent to the Hague instead of being summarily executed? What if Saddam Hussein had been shipped there instead of facing the process that led to hanging by a detachment of Kurds who mocked him right up to the moment the trap door opened under his feet?
They would still be alive, embodying the state in their own minds and those of their supporters. Would Iraq and Libya be even more troubled if their former leaders were living in prison cells in the Netherlands?
A final question prompted by Karadzic's appearance — about Bashar al-Assad. Let's assume he’s not a Baby Doc kind of dictator and will stay in Syria to the bitter end. Who is best placed to judge him when he’s inevitably toppled? The International Criminal Court in the Hague? Or the people he ruled?
He is the state in his own reality. If the state is overthrown, what should become of him?
I want to believe that international tribunals for those who commit crimes against humanity are an important step in human rights law. But when Karadzic and his ilk make such a mockery of our reality, is there a better way to deal with them?