The court is political
The smartass response goes something likes this: “Of course it’s political; what’s not political? Haven’t you read the ICTY’s website? It says clearly that the tribunal was established for explicitly political reasons, too, by the UNSC, which is political by definition.” But the smartass response is a rude interruption. The above assertive prefaces monologue, not dialogue. The monologue is a story about world politics as a dog-eat-dog contest in which the strong always devour the weak with a focus on the origins of the ICTY. “Of course an international judicial institution cannot be created on the basis of an UNSC resolution alone. Of course Chapter VII of the UN Charter does not specify the conditions under which war crimes tribunals can be set up. Of course the ICTY quickly discovered that it could not bother with the question of own legality. But when have great powers ever cared about law and institutions? Might makes right, right? The ICTY is based on the consent of states – big states, not our banana republics.”
This story varies in terms of breadth and depth, but its modal conclusion is that the tribunal cannot represent anything but “victor’s justice” and/or Western and specifically American oppression of those living on the periphery. As for the motive, the supposedly aggressive prosecution of Bosno-Serbo-Croat baddies practiced by the ICTY is a function of the desire for retribution for every case of ex-Yu insolence in recent history, starting with the Trieste crisis of 1945. As discipline and punishment at once, trials are also meant to serve as a warning to the rest of the peripheral and semi-peripheral world. This type of theorizing could be described as a cross between pop-realism and pop-Marxism with a whiff of the crudest forms of pop-anti-Americanism and some other, far less respectable prejudices. While it is not exactly a closed loop, for every new newstory indexing Western and specifically American double standards and double visions in international law, the theory gains strength. Who in the former Yugoslavia doesn’t have an informed opinion on the “Hague Invasion Act”?
The two accounts of the origins of the ICTY that I have on my shelf make something of an opposite case. Pierre Hazan’s book, subtitled ‘The True Story Behind the ICTY’, suggests that the weak (international justice activists) outfoxed the strong (realist diplomats and state-centric lawyers) and, against all odds, managed to turn the tribunal into such a revolutionary achievement (more on this below). Hazan is no theorist of norms and transnational advocacy networks, but there are more than a few parallels with this literature. The second account is Rachel Kerr’s 2004 book, which begins and ends with the thorny issue of “politicization,” including the issue of “prosecutorial discretion” as its special subset. Kerr has the ICTY walking on a tightrope. Sidle up too closely to justice, and you alienate those who rule the world; let politics in, even to manipulate it for judicial ends, and you lose credibility. While infinitely more nuanced than Hazan’s, Kerr’s framework for analyzing politics (it, too, chimes with 1990s IR theory, namely the “bringing international law back in” literature) follows the same binary – let me personify it a little as a contest between “realists” versus “legalists” – and it reaches the same conclusion. And judging by both the quotidian operation of the court as well as its key decisions up to 2002-3, Kerr finds, “legalists” had the upper hand.
I am not sure what stock-taking exercises based on the realist vs. legalist framework look like today (again, this post is my attempt to reconnect with the literature I stopped following years ago), but what struck me in my conversations is how adamant my interlocutors were in rejecting even the most carefully drawn legalist claims. It’s simple, the typical response goes, the ICTY is subject to constant political pressures and it shouldn’t be surprising to see so much judicial malpractice. Lest one is keen to dismiss this as “typical” ex-communist (and transitionalist) disdain for the notion that law serves to ensure that valuable social goods are distributed in ways that protect equal respect for everyone, note that some of the most critical arguments about the “hopelessly political court” are drawn from the texts left behind by bona fide ICTY insiders like Antonio Cassese (he of those great international law textbooks), Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, Louise Arbour, Graham Blewitt, Carla Del Ponte, Serge Brammerz, and Florence Hartmann (more below). Anyone can cherry-pick a few memorable lines from a few memoirs and journalistic accounts (Hartmann, if I recall correctly: “the ICTY was formed so that war criminals could negotiate on the level of their innocence”), but what I find interesting is that these types of arguments have gained more and more adherents over the years.