The Croatian government’s furious response to the arrest of ten Bosnian Croats on war crimes charges in Bosnia and Herzegovina was diplomatically incompetent and will not help the suspects, analysts argue.
The Croatian government’s harsh reaction to the recent arrests of ten Bosnian Croats on war crimes charges shows the complete failure of the country’s policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, analysts told BIRN.
Croatia’s attempt to exert political pressure on its neighbour over the case will also end in failure, they insisted.
Croatian politicians expressed outrage after the arrests on Monday of the ten former members of the wartime Croatian Defence Council for alleged crimes against Serb prisoners of war in 1992 and 1993 in the Bosnian town of Orasje. The arrested men are also Croatian citizens.
Miro Bulj, an MP from the junior government coalition partner, the Bridge of the Independent Lists, MOST, asked for a break in a parliament session on Wednesday - a common practice used by lawmakers to highlight urgent issues.
Croatian Foreign Minister Davor Ivo Stier said the same day that the government had established “close communication with allies in NATO and the EU” to ensure that Croats were not being unfairly targeted in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“We shared our concerns with them and we are coordinating with our allies future steps in policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, based on our policy of support for the Euro-Atlantic path of Bosnia and Herzegovina and on ensuring the equality of the [country’s] three constituent peoples [Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs], including the Croat people, in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he said.
Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic told a government session on Thursday that Croatia will help the men, saying that the country’s independence and territorial integrity was defended in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s as well as at home.
“The Croatian state will make sure that, after the victory in the Homeland [1990s] War, it supports Croatian defenders [war veterans], prevents attempts to revise historical events and protects Croatian national interests,” Plenkovic said.
Plenkovic also expressed surprise that the arrests came just after he made an official visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
He said that although all war crimes should be prosecuted, attempts to frame the men’s actions during the war as part of a ‘joint criminal enterprise’ including the Bosnian Croats and senior Croatian political and military officials were unacceptable.
The Bosnian prosecution office said however that there were no ‘joint criminal enterprise’ charges against the men.
Political analyst Zarko Puhovski told BIRN that “at least unconsciously”, the Croatian government has yet again reiterated the idea that Croats could not have committed war crimes “since they defended themselves”.
Puhovski also said that by calling upon NATO, the government somewhat implies that its citizens “can't be tried for war crimes” before foreign and international courts, modelling itself on the US, which refuses to allow its troops to face war crimes trials abroad.
“This is actually one clumsy formulation since, objectively speaking, no one in the NATO or the EU is interested in the issue, and for Croatia, which is trying to use its NATO membership as a ‘club’ against Bosnia, the whole thing can again end in failure,” Puhovski explained.
He cited the example of how Croatia’s attempt to become a ‘friend of the court’ in the trial against six Bosnian Croats was rejected in July by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
‘Lack of diplomatic competence’
Dejan Jovic, a professor at Zagreb’s Faculty of Political Sciences who was the chief analyst for the former Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, told BIRN that foreign powers “shouldn’t be called upon” to intervene in the case against the Bosnian Croats.
“I think that somebody legitimate should be appealed to for something and not NATO or the EU, which Bosnia isn’t a member of, but possibly the High Representative [Bosnia and Herzegovina’s international overseer], who is legally connected to Bosnia,” Jovic said.
He said that although Bosnia has “limited internal sovereignty” – due to the powers of the High Representative – it “has full external sovereignty and Croatia has to treat it like that”.
“Is the government reacting because they believe these people are innocent, or simply because they are Croats? How would it look if a UK citizen was arrested in Croatia for crimes he is suspected of committing there and the British government called on NATO to intervene?” he asked.
Jovic said there was a “surprising lack of diplomatic competence” being displayed by the Croatian administration, especially considering that Plenkovic and Stier are both experienced diplomats.
He also argued that the controversy had become more damaging because Croatian politicians have made Bosnia and Herzegovina a focus of their foreign policy rhetoric over the past couple of weeks.
Claiming that Croatia will be key to its neighbour country’s Euro-Atlantic integration upsets Bosnian politicians - Bosniaks see it as patronising, while Serbs see it as an attempt to pull the country into the EU ahead of its Balkan neighbours, he explained.
Bosniaks and Serbs also are wary of Croatia because of its role in the “troublesome events of the 1990s”, he said.
“What would happen if some other country put Croatia in the focus of its foreign policy? Croatia would also probably be unsatisfied with that,” he added.
Jovic admitted however that he understand the “fear among Croatian generals that the investigations could be widened and include them”, as Croatia had an active role in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Puhovski suggested meanwhile that the Orasje case drew special attention, even though there have previously been similar arrests of Bosnian Croat officers, because the government thought that Plenkovic had succeeded in charming Bosnian officials on his visit.
He added that the case of Orasje was a specific one because Croats “defended themselves there without any doubt”.
Ljubic complained about what he described as “Bosniak and Serb investigators going through Croatia’s archives taking what suits them, while Croatia is prevented from the doing the same”.
“This isn’t controversial, this is completely wrongly put,” Anto Nobilo, an experienced lawyer in the field of international humanitarian law who represented several Bosnian Croat officers at the Hague Tribunal, told BIRN.
“Croatia, as a state that respects the rule of law, has an interest in war crimes allegations being cleared, prosecuted and tried. If Croatia did help Bosnian investigators in tracking relevant evidence in the archives, that means that Croatia worked according to the rule of law and according to the protocol on mutual cooperation and the exchange of information that was signed between the state attorney’s offices of both countries,” Nobilo said.
He also argued that statements insisting that Bosnian Croats in Orasje only defended themselves are “legally irrelevant when it comes to prosecuting [the case]”.
“The fact that Croats and Bosniak defended themselves from the aggressive policies of [Serbian leader] Slobodan Milosevic is only the political context but isn’t legally relevant to the existence of war crimes. Even in a defensive and just war, war crimes can be committed,” he said.
Many media commentators on the arrests have emphasised that Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina only defended themselves during the war, but some hinted that crimes were inevitable.
Pavao Miljavac, a former defence minister and chief of the general staff of the Croatian Army, said that he was also suspected of war crimes according to command responsibility and insisted that “war is not a ballet”.
Troubling legal precedents
Nobilo said that Croatia had limited options for helping the men who were arrested because political pressure will not have any impact in the courtroom.
He explained that Croatia can help the defendants in preparing their cases, helping them track documentation and witnesses that could prove their innocence.
The Croatian state attorney office can also help the Bosnian prosecution to better prepare the entire case and provide other assistance.
“According to the Vienna Convention, due to the fact the suspects are Croatian citizens, Croatia can have a monitor in those legal proceedings through its consular representative,” he said.
However he said that a more troubling issue was the fact that Hague Tribunal verdicts have previously ruled that Croatia was actively involved in an international conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina - a legal judgment that could have significant implications in the Orasje case.
Almin Dautbegovic, the lawyer for one of the arrested men, Djuro Matuzovic, a retired Croatian Defence Council general, said on Thursday that his client will testify that he was only “a link in the chain of command” which went right up to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic at the top.
Dautbegovic said that “on paper Matuzovic was the commander, but that commanders from Croatia had the real jurisdiction [over Croatian Defence Council troops]”.
He also said that Matuzovic sees himself as a “scapegoat” and thinks Croatian Army commanders should be held responsible, and will provide their names to the Bosnian prosecution.