The Debacle At The Hague

by John Steppling

August 16, 2004   


(Swans - August 16, 2004)  It's interesting to note how most reasonable people I know accept the duplicity of corporate mainstream media. The run up to the invasion of Iraq was rightly seen as crass propaganda by most right thinking humans. However, these same people have a much harder time questioning the assumptions behind, and the statistics about, what is happening in the Sudan now, or Rwanda, and especially what took place in the former Yugoslavia.

Why is this? Well, looking at Yugoslavia, perhaps it's the liberal tendency to believe Democrats wouldn't really fabricate a crisis, or create one, or distort all the information about one. They tend to think a Democrat wouldn't drop tons of Depleted Uranium (DU) tipped ordnance on a country unless there was a darn good reason for it -- a reason of humanitarian resonance. The bombing of Belgrade, under Bill Clinton, and carried out by Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark, is still widely seen as the way, the only way, to stop the genocide orchestrated by crazed Serbian killers. Now, I suppose it's time to look more closely at this word "genocide." The propaganda mill that Washington drives non-stop has created over the last twenty-some years a sort of index of buzzwords that it trots out, with appropriate visual reinforcement, to convince the liberal left (it doesn't have to convince the right) that sending in the Marines is actually a noble and compassionate act. Genocide is at the top of this buzzword list. It's a word that was rarely used after WWII out of a sense for the specialness of the Holocaust. It has, of late, however been used for almost all international crises, raising bizarre issues of body counts vs. varieties of atrocity; the new Olympics of comparative ethical mayhem. When one needs to focus attention on a particular issue, those running the show just cry genocide. It is now a shorthand for armchair debate about intervention (by the colonial West) and about when it should start; now, or a bit later. In any case, sending in the Marines has never been, nor will it ever be, a compassionate act. Armies are created, as are states for that matter, to protect the ruling class and their interests. The question is always framed with a "how can we stand by while this happens." sort of formatting (cue visual aids, scene of refugee camp, hungry children, interview with caring NGO workers). Such framing creates the atmosphere in which guilt will grow most quickly, and modern guilt is intimately linked to self-loathing, doubt, and feelings of alienation. To alleviate this alienation the narcotized public must be given symbolic acts of compassion and caring...and such symbolism can be found (in a kind of weird Freudian/Biblical vortex) by spilling more blood...by symbolic sacrifice in the cloak of humanitarian intervention. The transgression is erased through the proof found in the symbolic slaughter. Exploring the underlying causes of such crises is simply too much work for most citizens. Such is the modern dysfunctional Empire.

My intention is not to go over the entire history of this complex region, but to focus on the propaganda surrounding the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, and especially the current state of his defense and the collapse of the prosecution's case. I find a great many people who otherwise might question an illegal institution like the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), willing to accept this one's dodgy foundations and lack of international credibility because they have been so convinced of the "evil" of Milosevic. Just a quick rewind here: Milosevic was kidnapped (illegally, as most kidnaps are) by Zoran Djindic, former President of Serbia, in exchange for a promise of one billion in aid (which never came, because the U.S. decided there was the matter of a debt incurred by Tito that needed to be made right). Imagine Ariel Sharon being kidnapped -- a genuine criminal, blood soaked and pathological -- or Henry Kissinger, or John Negroponte, and carried off to The Hague and tossed in a cell. Imagine the response of the media. Yet hardly a word of complaint was heard in the West when Milosevic was snatched. Why? The obvious answer has to do with the business interests and agenda of the U.S. (and its desire to further co-opt NATO) to break up the Yugoslav Republic. Since these same interests control the media, one isn't likely to hear much of a critique from ABC, CBS, NBC or CNN or FOX, or even The New York Times. America is a force for good, after all. We only kidnap those who deserve kidnapping, and Milosevic, by the time he was taken, had been sufficiently demonized that there seemed little to do except take him to prison and throw away the key.

The prosecution has spent two years (and called 295 witnesses!) on this case, and for anyone who has bothered to look hard enough, this prosecution has utterly failed to prove a single of its accusations. Neil Clark (in The Guardian), back in February, pointed out that nothing has been proven and then added, "the nature and extent of the atrocities themselves have been called into question." I remember CNN full of the odious Christiane Amanpour (not coincidently the wife of Albright's errand boy Jamie Rubin, who also not coincidently was Wesley Clark's assistant during Clark's closed door testimony -- a hearing that even Milosevic's legal associates were not permitted to attend) blathering on about how important a trial this was, how international justice was on the threshold of a great breakthrough, yada yada yada. Funny, I don't see Christiane, or anyone, talking about this "important" case anymore. From daily updates to nothing. Why? Again, the answer lies in the total breakdown of the US/NATO scenario. Milosevic defended himself, while refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. The delusional Carla Del Ponte was possibly, in retrospect for the Empire, a bad choice to head the prosecution. A dwarfish, churlish, and unpleasant Swiss woman of seemingly limited intelligence, Del Ponte has carried on with little prosecutorial skill and even less self-control when facing a journalist's microphone. Beyond that, the endless list of witnesses has been revealed (often by deft questioning from Milosevic) as liars, frauds, and accomplices of US interests. The transcript runs to 50,000 pages (all materials run to 500,000 pages, and additionally some 5,000 video cassettes). Milosevic has had to read it all himself and has been denied visits from family and friends. Even with this head start the prosecution couldn't mount a coherent case for any of its charges. Even those who cling to the arguments of journalists like Timothy Garton Ash, Misha Glenny, or Marlise Simons will be forced to face the fact that this trial has been a fiasco from its inception. This, however, brings us to the current situation; now that the prosecution has rested and that it's Milosevic's turn to defend himself, the Court is worried (yeah, right) that his health may not allow him to continue to act as his own counsel. The intention of the Tribunal is to impose a counsel, to force Milosevic to stop defending himself. This desperate eleventh-hour measure is a naked reminder, if any were really needed, of just how far off track this entire proceeding has gone. The absurdity of using an untreated medical condition as an excuse to abridge basic rights and silence a defendant is, possibly, a new low point in modern international law.

Fifty international lawyers have signed a petition sent to the UN Security General, the Security Council, and the General Assembly (signed by, among others, Ramsey Clark, USA; Jacques Verges, France; Sergei Baburin, VP of the Russian Duma; Jitendra Sharma, India; and drafted by Tiphaine Dickson, Canada). The main thrust is that an imposition of counsel constitutes a violation of all recognized judicial rights (and will further aggravate Milosevic's health, rather than alleviate his medical condition). The International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, US Supreme Court decisions, and the Rivonia Trials (where Mandela defended himself!) are cited as precedent. The right to defend oneself is central to all international law and the very structure of adversarial justice. In fact, the only precedent for imposition of counsel can be found in the Star Chamber, which since the 17th century has stood as symbolic of egregious disregard for basic defendant's rights. The ICTY now resembles nothing so much as Judge Roy Bean or the inner chambers of Torqemada, such is the devolution of due process in our era of Empire. The entire process has been tilted to favor the prosecution -- Milosevic gets only 150 days to prepare his defense (the prosecution has had at least since 1999 to prepare material, and from another perspective has had almost ten years) and has had no access to the media, something which the prosecution has been playing to endlessly, voicing their perspective and commentary...including the creepy appearance of Wesley Clark following his censored testimony. Notwithstanding the obvious bias, the average citizen of the West (and certainly of the U.S.) would get the impression (as a Harper's valentine article to The Hague indicated) that the ICTY has bent over backwards to accommodate Mr. Milosevic. Such distortion is typical of the new corporate spin that is lapped up by liberals and conservatives alike. In The London Times of July 31, 2004, in a review of Chris Stephen's book "Judgement Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic," Janine Di Giovanni points out that "if Judgement Day were read with no prior knowledge, it would be possible to believe Milosevic had already been tried and convicted." Stephen's book is the usual gloss on this subject. It's telling to note that that other Chalabi, who now runs the Saddam trial, has put an end (after one preliminary hearing) to any journalists or media inside the courtroom, fearing no doubt, exactly what has taken place at the ICTY. Clearly, they have learned their lesson; simply don't allow any kind of due process and keep it all secret.

Tiphaine Dickson, an international lawyer practicing before the UN tribunals since 1997, spoke to me about the steady and Orwellian deterioration of internationally recognized basic rights by the very bodies whose stated purpose is to enforce respect for human rights. "The precedents set by the Rwanda and Yugoslav courts are shocking for defense lawyers who arrive to defend a client at The Hague or Arusha. Indictments with little or no evidence, disregard for extradition procedures, piecemeal disclosure, third hand hearsay, drastically limited cross examination, and modification of rules by judges in collaboration with the prosecution as trials go along, not to mention US pressure to speed up the process; all of it is just par for the course in these Security Council Institutions. I was once asked by a journalist why I became a political lawyer. My answer was because these courts insisted on carrying out political trials."

I can't really speak for exactly why otherwise open-minded people feel so intractable about this subject. Perhaps it's just the Clinton aspect to the bombing, or more likely, it's just the infantile response one has in the face of all authority, and the attendant submission to the illusion of protection that all authority figures provide. Seeking consensus is part of this childhood fear, the need for the father figure to be given respect and from which, in return, one will receive rational security. The sense of hopelessness most people feel today makes such submission, such yearning for agreement, seem like (and feel like) the only choice left. This is how propaganda works. One sees it in the hysteria for Kerry, even though people know protest was silenced and protesters were stuck in cages outside Fleet Center, and one sees it in the refusal to look more deeply at the show trials of figures like Milosevic, who has become a poster boy (along with Saddam, Castro and all of FARC) for evil and despotism and, of course, terror (never mind Islam Karamov of Uzbekistan, for instance, is a boon ally, nor Colombian President Uribe, our partner in the war on drugs, is and was a known narco-trafficker). The notion of spreading "our" values lies behind not just Iraq, but behind the destruction of Yugoslavia as well. An examination of who profits from these exercises in neo-liberal do-gooding is rarely taken (Camp Bondsteel was built by Kellogg, Brown and Root...as a quick example). The American force for good has to go in and save people by killing more of them. Few question the assumptions behind buzzwords like Srebrenica or ethnic cleansing (get Sharon on the phone again, OK?) or mass rape or death squads. Evidence seems unnecessary and increasingly due process seems simply an irritant, to be done away with, if at all possible. Presumption of guilt seems no obstacle to a "fair" trial. From Guantánamo Bay or Abu Ghraib to The Hague is not such a leap. From the Star Chamber or the Texas Death House, to the irrationality of Carla Del Ponte, Jeffrey Nice, or the late Richard May (who died of brain cancer mid-trial) is also but a small step. Crises occur and few ask for what or who created them. Just send in the UN, or the Marines, and kick some ass, dump some munitions, and then call in the World Bank and the IMF. A favorite argument of the liberal left starts with the opening giveaway that history not be exhumed, and that one should only ask "what is to be done now?" As if that is the new reality principle, the new realpolitik. History is increasingly to be ignored or taken on faith from State Department memos, and that the difficult and often nearly impossible task of sifting through the remains of cultures and peoples and villages is just too complicated and time consuming, and often (most importantly) yields only partial results. Real history is not made of the whole-cloth (invented) truisms so beloved by the new liberal journalists that serve as hagiographers for our Imperial class. It's as if to question the veracity of major magazines and newspapers; to question the possible agenda of journalists (clinging to jobs where the paycheck comes from a corporation with a vested interest in the matter) is too large a leap -- it threatens too much of the bedrock trust in societal institutions. Without that trust the sense of our place and role would be threatened, and without that sense, people tend to reach psychic fail-safe.

The script for the ICTY was to blame Serbian aggression for the wars in the Balkans. The Serbs must then accept guilt and voilà, history will be re-written to accommodate the US strategic and business interests. The destruction of legality evident at the ICTY is important for other reasons as well. If such kangaroo courts are given credibility and accepted, then one can pretty well expect a similar erosion of due process when the courts are prosecuting junkies and homeless people, black teenagers and Latino gang members. They can all expect to have to adhere to even more stringent standards of innocence, while Poindexter, Negroponte or Elliot Abrams can continue to find work in high places and sleep comfortable in the knowledge that their privileges are guaranteed. The same folks who lied about WMD previously lied about Yugoslavia. The National Endowment for Democracy and the co-opted US media trotted out all manner of myth and fiction, most now roundly discredited, and yet those myths stuck. Everything from disguising the identity of the narco-gangsters of the KLA as plucky freedom fighting underdogs (with help from Paul Wolfowitz and the Balkan Action Council, and Bob Dole, for whom Albanian-Americans raised over a million dollars to assist his election campaign -- Diana Johnstone is particularly good on this subject), to the negative labeling of Milosevic as a hyper-Nationalist (we all know Bush and Kerry are nothing of the sort) and a fascist. All managed to find traction in the popular consciousness on the Balkans. The fundamental illegality and outright criminality of The Hague is obvious even if one insists on buying into the rest of the US story on Milosevic. At the very least I would hope the naked and blatant lack of fairness involved at the ICTY will be acknowledged, for it is the starting point for a re-examination of this entire shabby chunk of revisionist history. I hope that at the least, the biases and contradictions of the jingoistic press will be denounced; for to continue to accept the glaring lack of impartiality of this Tribunal, and its coverage, is to accept another step in the police state's death grip on our existence.

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The Balkans and Yugoslavia on Swans


John Steppling is a LA playwright (Rockefeller fellow, NEA recipient, and PEN-West winner) and screenwriter (most recent was Animal Factory directed by Steve Buscemi). He is currently living in Poland where he teaches at the National Film School in Lodz.

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Published August 16, 2004
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