A turning point has been reached in the arguments about universal criminal jurisdiction. Significantly, this happened in Britain. The country’s role in radically broadening the scope of international jurisdiction in the Pinochet affair — when the former president of Chile was arrested on a Spanish warrant and held for two years — had far-reaching, and baleful, effects. At the time, Britain’s Labour government was proud of its work. But now even it is worried. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just announced that in the future the official prosecution service will have sole charge of prosecuting war crimes and similar offenses. He did so reluctantly, and only because of heavy pressure from Israel, after Tzipi Livni, Israel’s former foreign minister, was threatened with detention on the basis of an arrest warrant obtained by a pro-Palestinian group. Mrs. Livni has rightly stated: “A change should have been made before.” But even now, no more than a single cheer is deserved. A less prominent, but no less significant, case currently before the British courts demonstrates why.
On Monday, March 1, Ejup Ganic, a former vice president of Bosnia, was arrested at Heathrow by the Metropolitan Police, acting on an arrest warrant issued by a court in Serbia. Serbia has also lodged a request for Ganic’s extradition. He was refused bail, dispatched to Wandsworth prison, and denied access to lawyers or contact with his ambassador. Bosnia has protested strongly and, in order to foil Serbia, is itself seeking Ganic’s extradition. The case continues.
Ganic is no minor (or even major) Balkan villain. He is a close friend of Margaret Thatcher, whom he has known since 1992, when he slipped out of Sarajevo during the siege of that city, to visit her and beg for help. Now regarded as rather too moderate and secular for high political office, he has returned to academe, and runs a flourishing private university in Sarajevo, which is twinned with the private University of Buckingham in England. He had been on a visit to Buckingham when he was seized.
The charge in the warrant is conspiracy to murder. It relates to events that took place in Sarajevo on May 3, 1992. The previous day, Alija Izetbegovic, the elected president of Bosnia, was seized by Yugoslav (i.e., Serb) forces at the Sarajevo airport when returning to the country. The Serbs had shelled large areas of the city, but failed to control it. Units under the command of Serbian general Milutin Kukanjac were, meanwhile, bottled up in the city barracks. A deal was, therefore, brokered to exchange him for Izetbegovic. The details, however, were unknown to ordinary Bosniaks, who knew only that their president was being held hostage. So when a column of Yugoslav vehicles — one of which was carrying the president and the general — moved off through the city, it was attacked by a furious mob. Before order was restored, a number of Yugoslav soldiers were dead — 40, according to Serbia now; six or eight, according to more reliable sources. During his incapacitation, Izetbegovic had publicly handed over power to Ejup Ganic. Ganic is now charged with having ordered that day’s attack on the column.
Some points are immediately obvious. The alleged war crime took place in Bosnia, and Ganic was acting president of the country. So why should Serbia, not Bosnia, claim jurisdiction? In the succeeding months 10,000 Sarajevan civilians would die as a result of shelling by the Serbs from the surrounding hills. Why single out this particular event? The Hague tribunal on Yugoslav war crimes, rather than a Serbian court, is the obvious place to bring the case. Why take the present route?
The answer to all these questions is the same: politics. The Hague tribunal — now winding down — has investigated both Ganic personally and the events in question, and found no case to answer. By an agreement reached just a few days before Ganic’s arrest, it was accepted by Bosnia and Serbia that each country would try its own citizens for alleged war crimes. The Ganic case violates that undertaking. However, the timing was too good to miss. It was intended to strike a note of defiance as Radovan Karadzic, the wartime Serb leader, took the stand in The Hague for genocide. And the arrest was made on Bosnia’s national independence day — another calculated insult.
The case will accelerate dangerous developments in the region. It sets the seal on a reversion to nationalism in Serbia after a period of more liberal rhetoric. Significantly, the arrest was praised by Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Republika Srpska — the quasi-autonomous Serb entity in Bosnia — and the mounting strife may bring forth Dodik’s promised announcement of a referendum on independence, with a view to joining Serbia. A renewed war is by no means unthinkable.
But of still greater international consequence is the precedent set by the affair. The British authorities allowed themselves to become dupes of judicial manipulation, and it will be hard to claw back towards common sense. Serbia is a signatory to the European Convention on Extradition. This should mean — but does not — that its courts conduct their business fairly. No one, knowing the circumstances, could imagine that Ganic would receive a fair trial in Belgrade. Yet Britain has limited its own options, by legislation passed in 2003 that reduces the scope for ministers to intervene to stop such cases.
Any present or former politician, high official, or soldier from any of the countries involved in the wars accompanying the breakup of Yugoslavia is now at risk of arrest on a politically fabricated charge if he or she comes to Britain. But one cannot stop there. Leading figures from many Western countries have also been involved in Yugoslavia’s wars, particularly in Kosovo in 1999. A Serbian court could issue warrants against these figures, too, and the British police will, as we have seen, unquestioningly act on them.
So Gordon Brown’s assurances are less than reassuring. It is not only private groups that manipulate international justice. So can states with ill-functioning judicial systems and little respect for veracity or equity. The abuses inherent in universal jurisdiction will, therefore, continue to manifest themselves in acute form in Britain, unless radical reform is undertaken. In the meantime, Heathrow arrival gates could usefully be marked: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
– Robin Harris is a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher.