The Price of Justice

The pursuit of justice can be a lucrative business

Weekly, or at least monthly, and sometimes on several occasions, we hear about Serbian war crime suspects who suddenly give themselves up and go to the Hague to face charges at the War Crimes Tribunal. The ultimate question is: why?

There is an old saying that crime doesn't pay. We like to believe this is true, but in reality this isn't always so. Indeed, in some parts of the world, the mere pursuit of justice -- and not the crime itself -- can be a lucrative business.

Take, for instance, the case of the former Yugoslavia. There, a new profitable enterprise has emerged: giving oneself up and going to The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity. This is in large part due to a recent move by the Republika Srpska to pay 50,000 euros to those individuals charged by the International War Crimes Tribunal who voluntarily surrender themselves to the authorities.

Yet it's not only the prospect of a lucrative lump sum payment that has prompted some Bosnian Serb war crimes suspects to give themselves up and face justice at The Hague. In addition to the 50,000 euros, during their internment they also receive a monthly allowance. This monthly payment is equivalent to roughly twice the average wage in Republika Srpska. Considering that while imprisoned they also receive free room and board, much of this allowance can be saved -- and even invested. Hence, being a defendant at a war crimes trial at The Hague can be seen as not such a bad job, given the harsh economic climate back home. Not only this, there is also a slim chance that the accused may not be found guilty.

Yet it's not only in Bosnia where being charged with war crimes can be an economic advantage. In March of last year the Serb parliament decided to provide financial support -- including travel expenses to and from The Hague -- for family members of those accused of war crimes who have voluntarily turned themselves in. The official reason for this is that those interned at The Hague are no longer able to look after their families. Thus, family members need to live from something, as well as keep in contact with the interned. This means travelling frequently to The Hague in order to help their loved ones by bringing over relevant documents and other bits of evidence necessary for their defense, not to mention moral and emotional support.

Consequently, Serbs interned at the Hague receive a monthly allowance of 200 euros, while family members are entitled to receive up to three free plane tickets to The Hague twice a month, along with 250 euros for expenses. So far, the Serbian government has paid out more than half a million euros in such financial support. This figure is expected to rise substantially: at the time when the law was passed, the government provided for the families of sixteen accused; since then, the number has risen to twenty six.

Meanwhile, for those who were forced to fight in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, many of whom sustained physical and psychological injuries, little has been done to redress the losses and hardships they now face. Moreover, deserters and those who dodged military service, who at the time ended up as outcasts and even fugitives within their own country as a result, are even today forced to somehow make ends meet under extremely difficult circumstances. Indeed, many are only able to survive by wheeling and dealing on the black market.

It's not easy being a war hero nowadays in Serbia

Despite a public outcry from some sections of Serb society, little has been done to redress this glaring imbalance. This is because within Serbia most of those accused of war crimes are viewed as war heroes by a majority of the population. Indeed, within Serbia the view of the war crimes tribunal is one of victor's justice; likewise, as history is always viewed from the point of view of the winner (that is, the winner's cause is always just and their actions are always correct), so too are the subjective labels placed on those who fought zealously for the cause of Serb nationalism. For this reason, while the West may consider such people war criminals, many Serbs consider them as war heroes.

Be this as it may, it's not easy being a war hero nowadays in Serbia. There's not much of a choice in terms of lifestyle: either live with government support and face the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, or live on the fringes of society and have your entire property confiscated. Even those who choose the latter, life as a fugitive ultimately takes it toll. After all, if they somehow do get captured, then the offers of government support no longer applies. Realising this, more and more war crimes suspects have decided to cash in while they still can.

While government support for war crimes suspects is quite generous in Serbia, it's not the only country within the former Yugoslavia to support those it deems as war heroes. All countries within the region have at least one war hero who is considered to be wrongly charged by The Hague.

Still, it can't be denied that Serbia goes to great lengths in the support -- both financial and moral -- they provide to their war heroes. In many ways, however, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. On the list of war crimes suspects, the vast majority are Serbs (106) followed by Croats (31), Bosnians (9), Albanians (7), and Macedonians (2). So far, in terms of sentences, Serbs received a cumulative total of 550 years, with Croats getting 142 years, and Bosnians with a total of 33 years.

Unfortunately, this state of affairs is unlikely to change in the future and doesn't bode well for reconciliation. In the same way that NATO and the West intervened in the Yugoslavian civil war merely to assay their own consciences that such a brutal conflict was going on in the backyard Europe, so too are the questions of justice and responsibility being skirted for political expediency.

In this hyped up, simplified, and digitized world of ours, there is no time for complicated problems demanding lengthy and sometimes complex solutions. Instead, a blind eye is turned to what is going on. Hence, when an issue does arise to the fore, the formula invariably remains the same: first try to throw money at the problem; if that doesn't work, use force; and when all else fails, pretend that the problem never existed in the first place. It appears this formula is now used by all sides when it comes to applying justice in the former Yugoslavia. (John Horvath)