The United Nations, which is supposed to represent the best of our collective aspirations for justice and human rights, yesterday represented the worst. Yesterday, the United Nations put on a passion play for genocide deniers, creating a political spectacle that tried to rewrite history.
The current president of the UN General Assembly is the former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic. He served a government dominated by the Serbian Radical Party whose founder is currently on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Jeremic arranged the UN meeting ostensibly to debate the “Role of International Criminal Justice on Reconciliation” but really to complain about the treatment of Serbians at the ICTY and to generally savage the court. While refusing to permit representatives of the victims of the Bosnian conflict to speak, Jeremic used his position to allow Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, a genocide denier, to make a speech in which he attempted to paint Serbs as the victims of the Bosnian conflict rather than its aggressors.
In Srebrenica in 1995, over 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were massacred on an industrial scale after repeatedly being raped and tortured. Over 25,000 women, children, and the elderly were forcibly transferred. Fathers were made to watch their sons suffer indescribable cruelties. Most of us who lived through this time will always see the rivers of blood. But not all of us. Ratko Mladic, the general who was in charge of the massacre, sees himself as an innocent patriot. And Tomislav Nikolic, in a June 2012 statement, said that, while crimes may have occurred, what happened in Srebrenica was not genocide. And that Serbians were victims of crimes as well.
I am proud that the United States, my adopted country, decided not to participate in this sham debate. In a statement, Erin Pelton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations said: “The United States strongly disagrees with the decision of the president of the General Assembly to hold an unbalanced, inflammatory thematic debate today on the role of international criminal justice in reconciliation and will not participate.” Canada and Jordan also boycotted the debate.
The narrative of the Serbian ultra-nationalists is one where they cast themselves as the victims or, at most, morally equivalent to their victims. Both sides were responsible for war crimes, they argue. But the historical reality gets in the way. So these genocide deniers have decided to attack the courts themselves.
International criminal tribunals are potent weapons against those who would twist history for their own political agendas. Sometimes the trials are agonizingly slow as every nuance of the evidence is tested in the crucible of litigation. But a reading of the facts that survive this type of close scrutiny makes it impossible for those who would rewrite history to get away with it. These criminal tribunals do more than stop impunity and jail those who rape, torture, murder, and commit genocide. These criminal tribunals establish the facts in a way that can’t be ignored.
Earlier this week during General Mladic’s trial, a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre was testifying that after being rounded up and herded together with others, he had managed to survive by pretending to fall dead upon a burst of machine gun fire, and lay there while more machine-gunned bodies fell on top of him. General Mladic allegedly told the witness “F*** your mothers.” Previously, a widow of the Srebrenica massacre said that General Mladic made a throat-slitting gesture at her.
To heal as a nation, as a region, as a world, we need to acknowledge what happened. We need to wipe away any attempts at impunity. Criminals have to be brought to justice. Victims have to be given an opportunity to tell their story to the world. If we pretend genocide never happened, then history will repeat itself. And none of us—whether we lived it, survived it, or just heard about on the news—should just stand by while politicians try to rewrite history.
That’s why we need international tribunals: international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, for Rwanda, for Sierra Leone and Lebanon, for Cambodia — and now the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the world. These judicial institutions not only administer justice, they create a record of truth. This is what happened: the good, the bad, and the ugly. They preserve evidence that can’t be rewritten, or changed, or forgotten. They are the true vehicles of peace, for there can’t be peace without justice.
I’ve been working with the ICTY and ICC for many years now. International criminal justice can be slow and frustrating. But I support the work of these institutions because I believe that without them genocide is more likely to be repeated. Without them, genocide will be an ever present threat to humanity.