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The Other War Criminals

by Sanjay Basu

on the politics of war crimes
To the lay American observer, the indictment and transfer of Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague just over a week ago may have appeared to be a grand display of positive American politicking -- a well-intentioned use of American pressure to bring a war criminal to justice. Just after the transfer, State Department officials called The New York Times to describe how Secretary of State Colin Powell twisted arms to make sure the accused war criminal was sent to the Hague.

The official said that Powell warned Serbian leader Zoran Djindjic to either hand over Mr. Milosevic or face a U.S. boycott of the Brussels conference -- a meeting where the Yugoslav leaders hoped to raise some $1 billion in aid. That aid would never have arrived without American participation, and, as the State Department official told The Times: "We made it quite clear that we want to help them...But they had obligations, and they had to meet those obligations, and the secretary never wavered from that."

With Powell, President Bush started a bandwagon of official pressure for Milosevic's transfer, calling the event a "very important step by the leaders in Belgrade"; other politicians hopped on board as well. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced that "We are witnessing one of the most significant events in postwar European history, where a nation has voluntarily turned over to an international tribunal for trial one of the most dangerous and maniacal European leaders since Hitler."

Even Richard Holbrooke had praise for the transfer of Milosevic. Holbrooke, who sat across the table from Milosevic during the signing of the 1995 Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian war, delivered a wide grin as he gave a public speech announcing that the former Serbian leader "is on his way to a well-deserved detention and trial." Holbrooke even suggested that the prosecutors expand their inquiry into Mr. Milosevic's role in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, when thousands of Muslims were killed by Bosnian Serb forces.

In spite of the glee of Holbrooke and others, a curious phenomenon seems to have occurred in recent days as other potential war criminals have been transferred to the Hague: the letters of praise have stopped washing across the editorial desks of our nation's newspapers, and the Washington voices against genocide have become unusually quiet. At the focal point of the sudden silence is the transfer of two former generals from Croatia, both of whom were indicted by the international war crimes tribunal for the massacres of hundreds of Serb civilians between 1993 and 1995, in a campaign referred to as the Croatian "Homeland War" for an independent state. Although Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the Hague tribunal, has refused to disclose the names of the two generals charged, European press agents have identified the most likely suspects: Ante Gotovina, a Croatian commander during the 1995 "Operation Storm" offensive that recaptured lands held by Serbian rebels, and Rahim Ademi, who is likely responsible for the killings of Serbs civilians during a 1993 offensive against the Serb rebels in central Croatia.

Plenty of articles on the transfer of the two Croatian generals have appeared in the American press, and most accounts have emphasized one key feature of the transfer: that sending generals to The Hague is not popular among Croatian citizens or government ministers. The mentioning of the indictment of Croatia's war heroes set off protests months ago, drawing tens of thousands into the streets. There is discord within the government as well; four members of Prime Minister Ivan Racan's cabinet resigned Saturday night after the government's decision to transfer the two generals. Some political analysts predict the transfer could result in a coup, but Racan has stood firm to the decision, proclaiming that "The Croatian nation should not and will not be a hostage to those who bloodied their hands, bringing shame upon Croatia's name -- no matter what credits they might have otherwise." But another feature of the transfer and its associated war crimes has not been mentioned in the American press, and is only alluded to in the bottom of a recent New York Times article: "European diplomats and military analysts have long believed that American military gave their tacit blessing and may even have helped plan [Operation Storm]."

In fact, the current evidence suggests that far more than a "tacit blessing" was received from the U.S. by those now indicted for war crimes. As recently reported by The Guardian (UK), American support came in the form of weapons and intelligence, primarily to General Gotovina during his brutal offensive against Serb citizens in Krajina and eastern Slavonia. In fact, evidence from UN reports indicates that in 1994, Croatian Defense Minister Joko Susak asked the Pentagon to train Croatian forces, and that Pentagon officials responded by directing the Croats to a Virginia-based military consultancy firm, Military Professional Resource Inc. (MPRI). MPRI is staffed by former U.S. army generals and trains U.S. army officers.

Investigative reporters for the London Observer have confirmed that U.S. generals were regularly training Croat soldiers for Gotovina's Operation Storm offensive, during which over 200,000 Serbs were driven from their homes and farms in the Krajina region. Canadian military officers present during the attacks have been interviewed by tribunal investigators, and told the officials that "indiscriminate" and "unnecessary" shelling of civilians took place during the offensive, although the number of people killed has still not be tallied. According to reporters at The Observer, both the American Defense Intelligence Service and the CIA even provided intelligence for the Croat assaults. In 1995, the newspaper also cited the testimonies of UN officials who had learned that the U.S. had breached the UN arms embargo by flying arms to both the Bosnian and Croat forces. Many of those forces were directed by Gotovina and other ethnic Croats from Bosnia who have already been transferred to the tribunal.

What all of this evidence indicates is that even as individual army generals receive indictments at the Hague, the focus of the international community should not only be on the actions of these individuals and armies, but on the actions of the larger international community and those world players (including our own country) who allowed war crimes to take place. While most articles on U.S.-Croat relations this week have focused on Wimbleton, another more sinister relationship between our two countries has resulted in countless deaths, and the silence of Washington voices on the issue is deafening to our peers in Europe. Although the conduct of United States officials during the time may not be discussed openly during these trials or in the editorial sections of most American newspapers, the official complicity and underground support of our own government for war criminals is a crime that Americans cannot afford to ignore.

Sanjay Basu, director of United Trauma Relief, is a former correspondent for the New York Times

United Trauma Relief (UTR) is a non-profit human rights advocacy and humanitarian aid organization based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). UTR provides direct relief for poor persons suffering from tuberculosis and AIDS, along with refugees and survivors of war and disasters. The organization is currently heading a redistribution initiative to "recycle" AIDS drugs and send them to doctors in the developing world; UTR has created a nationwide network of pharmacies and community care groups to redistribute these antiretroviral drugs across international borders. The group is also actively involved in political campaigns to offer asylum to refugees from Colombia and Sierra Leone. More information on the group's activities is available at

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Albion Monitor July 15, 2001 (

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