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Genocide Convictions at The Hague

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Marlise Simons at the New York Times reports:

Judges at The Hague handed down two rare genocide convictions on Thursday, sentencing two security officers for the Bosnian Serb Army to life in prison for their roles in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the worst single episode in a decade of war that left 100,000 dead and tore the Balkans apart. The verdicts, along with five other war crimes convictions, concluded an almost four-year trial in which many witnesses spoke, at times in horrifying detail, of the Serbian capture of the United Nations protected enclaves of Srebrenica and Žepa that held tens of thousand of Bosnian Muslim refugees.

The military operation ended with the deportation of thousands of women and children and the execution of close to 8,000 captive men and boys. Although the United Nations war crimes tribunal has convicted more than a dozen people of crimes committed in Srebrenica, it has only once before issued a conviction of genocide. And that ruling, against Gen. Radislav Krsti?, was lessened on appeal to “aiding and abetting genocide.”

But the decision involving two other high-ranking security officials, Vujadin Popovi? and Ljubiša Beara, may actually be worthy of more attention. They were charged with and convicted of “extermination as a crime against humanity” and “murder as a violation of the laws and customs of war.” The convictions rest on evidence that the genocidal crimes were not spontaneous, but rather the result of decisions taken within the formal chain of command during the 1992-95 war. And that makes it far more likely that the trial of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadži? will similarly conclude with a genocide conviction.

Under article 2 of the 1948 Convention Against Genocide, the crime is defined as

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The prosecutions so far have focused at least as much on detention and transportation arrangements prior to the actual killings of the civilians seized at Srebrenica, but that is just as the language of the Convention–recalling the experience of World War II–anticipates. What happens to prisoners, including how they are moved, is particularly significant because it provides evidence of formal government intent and purpose, moving legal culpability up the chain of command. Critics have long argued that the definition is vague and the circumstances in which the crime of genocide should be charged (as opposed to the lesser included offenses, such as homicide) are unclear. I don’t buy that. In any event, however, the decisions coming out of the Hague are providing essential precedent governing genocide as a crime, and the incident at Srebrenica is an excellent testing grounds. The Karadži? case will be the one to watch.

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