The international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), set up in 1993 to adjudicate crimes against humanity and crimes of genocide committed in the former Yugoslavia, was about to sentence Radovan Karadzic, one of the worst criminals of the Balkan wars of the 1990s and, more generally, of the period since World War II.
Outside, standing with the families of victims and survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, awaiting with quiet anxiety a verdict that everyone knows will be essential to the work not only of justice but also of grieving, was Florence Hartmann, a journalist who for years worked mightily to denounce those crimes, to help identify the perpetrators, and to untangle the web of complicity that made them possible.
The decision had not yet come down when a handful of guards split the crowd, pushing aside Bosniak women who, once they realized what was about to happen, tried unsuccessfully to close ranks and to protect the journalist from arrest.
For myself and others stunned by the news the story goes back to 2007, when the former correspondent for Le Monde, having returned to her original profession after several months spent helping the first prosecutor of the new tribunal, Carla Del Ponte, get the unprecedented institution up and running, published a book, Paix et châtiment (Peace and Punishment), in which, without revealing the details, she took note of a little arrangement between the tribunal and the government of Serbia, an arrangement designed to conceal the extent of the latter’s involvement in the actions of Serb separatists in Bosnia.
The tribunal, alas, reacted like one of the statist monsters against which it was supposed to deploy its new wisdom. Becoming anxiously indignant, it initiated a surreal proceeding against its former employee, imposed a fine that a support committee immediately raised the funds to pay, but then changed its mind and sentenced Hartmann to a week in prison — a sentence that no country, including France, took seriously enough to compel her to serve.
And it was that sentence that the ICTY guards, members of a private police force that holds no authority outside court property, a force whose role it is, not to rough up journalists but to watch over, escort, and prevent from escaping the architects of genocide who inhabit the ICTY’s cells, moved in to enforce.
By the time these lines appear Florence Hartmann will have been released from the cell in which she was subjected to the same treatment as Mladic, Karadzic, and the other monsters she has spent her life denouncing — and just a short distance from their cells.
Doubtless we will have heard by then embarrassed explanations, and perhaps even excuses, from the Netherlands, whose real police permitted, on Dutch soil, a disgrace that the monsters in custody never would have dared to imagine, even in their dreams, that a great democracy would commit, as well as from France, which did not, as far as we know, issue any very strenuous objection to the unprecedented treatment of one of its finest journalists.
And perhaps lesser colleagues, including those who, after the Balkan wars ended, so often abandoned Hartmann as she pursued, almost single-handedly, the painful struggle for the truth, will pop up in the media to say, in so many words, that it is not such a big deal to spend seven days of your life locked up, even among the murderers you have been pursuing, not so awful to live for a week with the lights kept on around the clock, with your clothes confiscated, and with the peephole into your cell sliding open every 15 minutes. Perhaps some will say (they have already begun to do so) that all she had to do to avoid this was not to be there at the ICTY that day with the families whose cause had for so long been her own.
For my part, on this 28th day of March, I want to express my anger at the shameful images that have circulated widely on the Web (though for once not widely enough) of a manhandled journalist, her glasses ripped off, dragged away by police, veritably kidnapped, and stashed in a jail that in principle is reserved for the dregs of humanity.
I want to express my astonishment at the faint-hearted response of the French media, compared with that of the Anglo-American press, in defending her. From the director of the daily that she served with such distinction for four years running we had a right to expect a little more than a belated article (four days after Hartmann’s arrest) criticizing as “totally disproportionate” (what would have been proportionate, one wonders?) the punishment meted out for her “whistle-blowing” (as if a committed, courageous journalist who has never relented in her search for the facts were no more than a “whistle-blower”).
And lastly I want to express my sadness at a disastrous failure. Last week, the day finally arrived when the world was to see the leader of Bosnia’s Serbs sentenced to forty years in prison, an occasion that should have been one of unalloyed joy for all those who had kept Bosnia close to their heart for twenty years, a day that should have been one of glory and victory for all of the men and women who had yearned to see the conclusion of the long march begun in Nuremberg by Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, the pair that introduced into modern law the notions of genocide and crimes against humanity. On this same day the ICTY chose to equate symbolically with the most hardened criminals a person who has done more to bring us to this point than nearly anyone else since Lemkin and Lauterpacht! Was this a lapse? An unintentionally revealing act? A misfire by an institution insufficiently aware its own greatness? Will we hear remorse? Or is this a sign of an era that cannot seem to stop repeating its own dark moments? What happens next will give us the answer.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy