A United Nations appeals court in The Hague on Friday unexpectedly overturned the war crimes convictions of two Croatian generals who led a 1995 campaign that helped end the wars involving Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia but also left several hundred Serbian civilians dead and drove more than 150,000 from their homes.Then, 2 weeks later The New York Times reported War Crimes Court Frees Former Leader of Kosovo:
A United Nations war crimes tribunal on Thursday acquitted the former prime minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, for the second time of charges of torturing and killing Serb civilians while he was a commander of the NATO-backed Kosovo Liberation Army during its fight for independence in 1999.
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- The appellate court’s first important move was acknowledging the obvious fact that in wartime even the most careful army makes mistakes. The trial court had convicted the Croats of illegally shelling four towns they were trying to capture. The appeals court said the lower court’s criterion–“that any shell that landed more than 200 meters away from a military target must have been fired indiscriminately–was arbitrary and ‘devoid of any specific reasoning’,” to quote The Guardian’s apt summary. In short, it accepted the fact that soldiers are human beings who make mistakes, and errant shells don’t necessarily mean the soldiers fired indiscriminately.
- Second, it acknowledged the obvious fact that even the most careful army can’t prevent civilian casualties. Some 150 civilians died in the generals’ four-day bombing campaign. But the appeals court said these deaths didn’t constitute war crimes, because the troops had aimed at legitimate military targets. In other words, it ruled that civilian casualties aren’t ipso facto illegal; they may be unavoidable consequences of legitimate military activity–especially when military targets are located in crowded urban areas.
- Third, it acknowledged that even when genuine war crimes occur, they may be the acts of errant individuals rather than deliberate policy: It concluded that acts of looting and murder following the bombing campaign occurred not on the generals’ orders, but despite them.
- Finally, it acknowledged the obvious fact that fleeing a war zone is normal, so a civilian exodus isn’t necessarily proof of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Gordon notes that Harland follows in the footsteps of the minority in the 3-2 court verdict who claimed the decision lacked "any sense of justice"
- Harland rejects the idea that civilians on their own would flee a war zone, writing that "If the acquitted generals were not responsible for this ethnic cleansing, then somebody was."
- Harland further writes that in the interests of fairness, convictions should be required for all parties to a conflict -- even if only one of the sides involved committed war crimes.
Still, the fact that the court accepted some common-sense arguments is a promising first step.
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