Under other circumstances, I might enjoy watching “human rights” activists decry the very international justice system they lobbied so hard to establish. But not when reactions like this one, by David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, show just how much resistance there will be to the important norms established last month by the appellate court of an international war crimes tribunal in the Hague. In a verdict ironically issued just as the world was obsessing over Palestinian civilians killed in the latest Hamas-Israel war, the court essentially upheld, in a Balkan context, all the arguments Israel routinely makes about the legitimacy of its own military operations. Consequently, the judges acquitted and freed two Croatian generals whom a trial court had convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 18 and 24 years, respectively.
The appellate court’s first important move was acknowledging the obvious fact that in wartime even the most careful army makes mistakes. The trial court had convicted the Croats of illegally shelling four towns they were trying to capture. The appeals court said the lower court’s criterion–“that any shell that landed more than 200 meters away from a military target must have been fired indiscriminately–was arbitrary and ‘devoid of any specific reasoning’,” to quote The Guardian’s apt summary. In short, it accepted the fact that soldiers are human beings who make mistakes, and errant shells don’t necessarily mean the soldiers fired indiscriminately.