Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Butcher's Trail by Julian Borger

This is the true story of what the author describes as the world’s most successful manhunt. It's a story about how a small group of determined individuals – investigators, prosecutors, spies and special forces – hunted down some of the perpetrators of the most horrific human rights abuses to occur in Europe since the Nazi era. It will also come as a surprise to many, as indeed it did to me, who can recall the seeming impotence of the US and EU in the face of the genocide rampaging across the former Yugoslavia during the 1990’s. The hunt that followed afterward appeared to go the same way, I can remember many a headline about the failure of the NATO alliance to bring war criminals to justice, who in turn appeared to take immense pleasure in rubbing the noses of The Hague Tribunal in their apparent imperviousness.

But the author, Julian Borger, a renowned Guardian journalist, marshals his facts and arguments well. He makes a solid case for the hunt for Balkan war criminals, rather than being an ignominious failure, in fact being an outstanding success. I would go so far as to suggest that his book in effect demonstrates that the hunt was the premier foreign policy success of the late 20th century, and overshadows those dubious policy decisions the NATO powers have made this century as well.

Every name on The Hague’s list was accounted for, a significant proportion facing trial after either handing themselves in or being captured. There were many mishaps along the way, much dragging of feet and reluctance borne from everything from disinterest to the fear of complicity being revealed in court. But there were also brave souls willing to put their reputations, careers, and in some case lives, on the line to see justice done. And there was derring-do too; the German commandos who against all the odds, and with little support, cobbled together the first successful snatch operation; or the American Delta forces who prepared an ambush which included a man in a full-body gorilla suit.

But for all the smoke and daggers, and there was much of that, the real heroes were the prosecutors such as Carla Del Ponte, who harangued every international body and nation conceivable to bend them to their will, and the investigators of the The Hague Tribunal itself, who understaffed, underfunded and overstretched, achieved more than all the better funded nation state intelligence agencies combined.

So the question remains: why if this hunt proved so successful has it all but been forgotten? In some ways it hasn't, the American’s certainly learnt much and were later to use this knowledge in Iraq and Afghanistan; indeed, Pete Blaber, the Delta commander, even took the Gorilla suit with him. But to public and political consciousness, the hunt for Balkan war criminals has all but faded from memory. Much of this can undoubtedly be put down to events which were to come: 9/11, the War on Terror, the disastrous intervention in Iraq were inevitably to dominate attention. But the author points to a more tragic explanation for bearing at least part of the blame. For whereas the hunt itself was a success, justice can be seen to have been partial at least. While some long sentences were handed down to the worst offenders, the prison in Scheveningen was luxurious with yoga sessions, classes on pottery and sculpture, and personal trainers. The Hague Tribunal’s list of suspects was always partial, a snapshot if you will, and many a perpetrator escaped Scot-free to live amongst the shattered communities of the Balkans, a constant and painful reminder of the past. But worst of all were the acquittals, especially those on appeal, and Borger points to interference from the US who feared a precedent being set for those in their own chain of command. For if a Bosnian Serb can be convicted for massacres committed by the bloodthirsty militia under his command, what of US generals in Afghanistan/Iraq?

So in conclusion this is a powerful but bittersweet account, a tale of a small group of dedicated individuals who bullied, cajoled, and forced the world to make do on its promises to bring justice to the victims of Balkan genocide, only to see this betrayed in courts of appeal and the corridors of power.

I would give this 5 out of 5 stars

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