Lord Owen spoke out at the trial of Slobodan Milošević
Friday, 27 January, 2012

Trouble in the Balkans started in 1991 when Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia.  The country of Yugoslavia was made up by a number of smaller countries which had all previously been independent.  After decades of being Yugoslavia, historic borders became blurred as different ethnic groups lived in a variety of places.  Once Slovenia separated, Croatia followed.  Serbia, the largest of the countries and ethnic groups of Yugoslavia, was unhappy with the disintegration of the country, as it believed that resources and land would be lost.  In some areas fighting began to break out.  In Serbia’s favour was the fact that it controlled most of the Yugoslavian military.

However, it was not just a land war, centuries old prejudices and ethnic divisions were brought up and the border conflicts developed into ethnic conflicts with groups pitted against each other based on ethnicity, religion and historic allegiances.

The conflict between the Former Yugoslavia, Serbia and Croatia spilled into the area of Bosnia-Herzegovina, affecting the population there which was very ethnically mixed.  In March 1992 the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence.  Almost at once it was besieged by Serb forces from a Bosnian Serb militia who claimed to be protecting their Bosnian Serbs.

The Muslim population, that had long been a target of hostility for some Serbian Nationalists, was at high risk.  An international arms embargo (introduced to try and stop the conflict) put the Bosnian Muslims further at risk as they had no weapons, whilst the Serbians had many. The International Community became involved to try and stop the conflict and in 1993 established Safe Areas within Bosnia and Herzegovina, by the resolution of the United Nations Security Council.  The territories (cities) assigned under protection of the UN peacekeeping units UNPROFOR (UN Protection Force) included Sarajevo, Žepa, Srebrenica, Goražde and Bihac.  The establishment of the UN Safe Areas were unsuccessful as the peacekeepers sent there were not supposed to get involved with fighting.

The horrors of the conflict became evident as massacres against Muslim men and women took place and  concentration camps were set up  The massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995 was the single largest act of violence against an ethnic group in Europe since the Holocaust.  More than 7,500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by the Serbian forces.

Furthermore the UN forces had failed to protect the civilians; instead Dutch peacekeepers were accused of assisting with the roundups of men to the camps.

In 1994, the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia opened in The Hague, Netherlands.  In August 2001, Radislav Drstic, a Bosnian Serb General, was found guilty of genocide in the killing of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.  It was the first genocide conviction in Europe since the UN genocide treaty was drawn up in 1948.

In 2001, the trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević began.  He was the former President of Yugoslavia and later Serbia and was believed to be behind the Serbian attacks on its neighbouring countries.  He stood accused of Crimes Against Humanity, Violations of the laws or customs of war, and Genocide.

During the trial hundreds of witnesses testified.  To testify in court and to see the person you believe responsible for killing your family is extremely hard and draining.  Those people who are prepared to speak out often find it emotionally draining and sometimes dangerous if they are still living in mixed communities.

Milošević was the leader during the conflict and as such took part in many high level meetings with those sent by the EU, NATO and the UN to negotiate a peace deal.  Therefore at his trial in addition to the ordinary citizens of the former Yugoslavia there were diplomats from other countries.  One of those was the British former politician Lord Owen.

Lord Owen was sent as an international negotiator to the Balkans and despite wishing to remain neutral he did agree to testify at the trial.

He [Milošević] was in charge of a government that could put real pressure on what they [the Bosnian Serbs] were doing, that could stop the shelling of Sarajevo, stop ethnic cleansing.  If he had done that, it would have brought peace to Bosnia two years earlier. [But] he wasn't about to ensure that they were defeated in a war.

Lord Owen agreed that other sides could have done more to find peace, but emphasised that the ‘balance of evil’ lay with the Serbs.

It is very unusual for a senior politician to appear in a trial in this way, but Lord Owen’s testimony made a large difference to attitudes to the legitimacy (rights) of the trial.

Unfortunately whilst on trial, Milošević suffered a heart attack and died in 2006.  For the victims and their families it felt as though they would get no justice.  Since then Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs and Ratko Mladić, an Army chief, who are believed to have carried out the actual massacres have both been captured and are now on trial for Crimes Against Humanity, Violations of the laws or customs of war, and Genocide.

Trials of this sort are important as they show that terrible crimes such as those committed at Srebrenica will be taken notice of and the perpetrators put on trial.  They also provide an opportunity for those affected to Speak Up, Speak Out about what happened to them and to let the world know about it.  Trials such as those of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia remind us that just because terrible events are not always reported on the news there are people out there who will remember and remind us not to forget.

You can download the case study here.