Following from J. Steele's item in the UK Guardian this morning, I've had a
few calls from journalists over the issue asking, "How can it be stopped?"
-- referring to the inevitable debate, the initial high figures, the
confusion and argument, and the latter downward revision.
I strikes me as odd that journalists are somehow upset, even shocked
(shocked!) that a military alliance in a war would use propaganda. It is
certainly inevitable, if not excusable. Any editor who took on face the
100,000 ("and may be dead") quote from Cohen deserves blame themselves.
Yet in terms of intervention, it's a case of damned if you do and damned if
you don't. Must action always wait until it is too late (Rwanda v. Kosovo)?
News of fewer dead should be cause for celebration, not recrimination. It
may also (in a very small way) suggest some self-critism on the Western side
to help those urging the same process in Serbia. And perhaps it may also (in
a very small way) help Albanians begin to develop a calmer approach to their
recent past and therefore present and future.
But overall, your breakdown of the issue was the most precise, and for me
extremely human. Big political debate never offers much to the people who
have actually paid the price, and the true reality of suffering is on an
individual basis, which we can never really know.
From: Andras Riedlmayer [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Friday, August 18, 2000 4:24 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Body counts
(cross-posting of comments only permitted)
In all the talk about mass graves and body counts, we have yet to clearly
face the fact that the investigators and prosecutors of the ICTY, the
local missing persons commissions and judicial authorities, the families
of the victims, political observers and media commentators all want the
exhumations to answer different questions.
In many respects those questions and goals are at cross-purposes and
it is likely that most will never be fully satisfied (or even addressed)
by the results of the exhumations.
Families and friends of the victims expect personal justice for their
loved ones -- they want to establish what happened to the particular
individuals they care about and they want those personally responsible
for those particular crimes brought to justice. This expectation is what
kept many families in Kosovo waiting for weeks and months last summer,
deferring proper burial of bodies found in burned out houses, wells, and
fields, until the ICTY investigators could come and see the remains.
The same expectation of individual justice is what has kept alive the
hopes and grief of the relatives of those killed at Srebrenica and in
countless other places in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.
The ICTY's prosecutors and the teams of forensic investigators who report
to them take a more Olympian view of the matter -- they're interested
not so much in resolving each individual case but in establishing patterns
of crime and tracing responsibility up the chain of command. For those
purposes, they have no need or intention of exhuming and identifying the
remains of every victim, establishing what happened to him or her, or of
identifying and prosecuting all the killers -- a representative sample of
crimes and victims and identifying the units responsible is sufficient.
In the cases that have been prosecuted so far the number of identified
victims has generally been small, with the proviso "and others" added
to the charges to indicate the incomplete nature of the sample presented.
The media pundits and the politicians, on the other hand, are interested
neither in finding justice for individual victims nor in the pragmatic
task of building cases that can be prosecuted successfully. They want
numbers that can be used to make points -- to condemn, excuse, or justify
The sad reality is that the process in the end is unlikely to bring
a satisfactory resolution for any of these interested parties.
The families will be lucky if they ever establish what happened to their
loved ones, let alone seeing those responsible brought to justice.
The ICTY prosecutor's office has made it abundantly clear that they're
interested principally in prosecuting those responsible at the top levels
of the chain of command and will not be involved in going after individual
perpetrators except in a few, particularly egregious and exemplary cases.
In the case of Kosovo, the odds that the five top people indicted thus far
by the ICTY will ever be brought into a courtroom is -- let's face it --
slim to none. As for the lesser war criminals, more than a year after the
end of the war, there is still not much progress in setting up a local
justice system prepared to take on the task of prosecuting them in Kosovo.
Even a small number of such local war crimes prosecutions, if they were
seen to be fairly conducted, would do much to defuse the festering ethnic
tensions. It should be no surprise that people will take to revenge and
turn a blind eye to violent acts by others when there seems to be no other
form of justice available.
In Bosnia, there have been some successful prosecutions brought before
local courts under the "rules of the road" (can anyone on the list tell us
how many?), but once again the likelihood is that the majority of the
murderers, rapists and torturers, even those responsible for particularly
vicious crimes, will never face prosecution.
As for establishing total body counts, that is not a task the Tribunal's
investigators are prepared or willing to take on. Again, look at the
situation in Bosnia, where fewer than a third of the bodies of the victims
of Srebrenica have been exhumed so far, and a mere handful of those
exhumed have been positively identified. That's after five seasons of
intensive field research on a high-profile case.
Many thousands of the victims in Bosnia, as in Kosovo, were hastily buried
or dumped in scattered, unmarked graves, each holding only one or a few
sets of remains. The odds that all or most of these will ever be found,
counted, and identified are not good. After its mandate runs out, the
Tribunal will eventually close up shop. But neither the bereaved families
nor the body-count afficionados will ever find truly satisfactory answers
to their questions.