Reading criminal tribunals: ICTY and the role of intellectual as interpreter of the national culture


The Drakulic Paradigm











Andrea Pisac


1.     A Space to Remember


a) Discourse of the national


Disintegration of communism in Croatia meant the return of nationalistic voices in the public space. The totality of everyday culture and culture as heritage began to be seen through the prism of national identity. Such ‘discourse of the national’ (Niedermüller 1998) serves not only for remembering historical events but it also sets political categories and creates cultural symbols for political use.


Post-socialism brought a new perspective on history; it found the way to repair the damaged history through its restoration, reconstruction and mythologization. The new political elite was eager to dig deep down for the ‘objective truth’ which was either suppressed or erased by the communist regime. The restoration and reconstruction of history gradually created a myth of origin of the new political system. The myth’s function was to explain how Croatia came about but also to legitimize its right for independence. Historical myth of origin served to provide the sense of continuity of a nation, whereas in social terms, the new bourgeois life style, a complete opposition of communist ideas of social equality, referred to the Austro-Hungarian heritage. Additionally, the folk culture was the only one regarded as real and genuine national expression.


Remembering differently, or remembering things which could not find their expression in the discourse of the national forced a number of intellectuals and writers into exile. One of them was Slavenka Drakulic.


b) The Drakulic paradigm


The writer has always had a crucial role in the representation of the national history. Esbenshade argues that writers are keepers of the records, custodians of memory and truth-tellers for the nation (Esbenshade 1995). Drakulic, having left the nationalist Croatia, found her speaking and remembering position in the West. However, ‘in the West, there is a temptation to view history and memory in Eastern Europe as “out of control”, with tribal passions, blood feuds, and “primitive” ethnic strife “threatening stability in Europe’ (Esbenshade 1995:73), which left Drakulic only with one narrative if she was to have her books published. She started writing for the Western audience about the ‘dark sides’ of communism and even more ‘backward’ horrors of nationalistic regimes.  In the West, there already exists an audience for writing of that kind – she only needs to fill the slot in the discourse with her personal testimony.


Drakulic continually suggests that there is an ‘objective’ truth hidden underneath the state created narrative. Her writing also claims to reveal what has been repressed in both regimes, failing to realize that the totality of history is not desirable any more. In other words, the only approach to national history is the one aware of the process of the history writing. It is crucial to remember that ‘whenever memory is invoked we should be asking ourselves: by whom, where, in which context, against what?’ (Zemon Davis and Starn 1989:2)


c) The problem of a survivor


The only book of collected essays that Drakulic published in Croatia refers to the idea of survival. She talks about surviving communism, then the war and lastly the post-communism. As a ‘survivor’ she uses language to ‘testify’ about her victimhood and trauma. Yet, language can bring both liberation, if revealing means healing, and subordination (Alcoff and Gray 1993:260). ‘Through rules of exclusion and classificatory division that operate as unconscious background assumptions, a discourse can be said to set out not what is true and what is false but what can have a truth-value at all, or in other words, what is statable’ (Alcoff and Gray 1993:265).


Survivor’s testimony can also have a transgressive character, especially when it challenges conventional speaking arrangements: it is not ‘normal’ for a woman to speak in a nationalistic patriarchal society, yet Drakulic does it. A speaker can also utter a highly problematic content: when Drakulic tried to dispute the homogenous idea of a ‘home country’ she was socially isolated and regarded a traitor.


2.     The role of an intellectual in society


a) Transcendental knowledge


In the last section of her most recent book They would never hurt a fly, Drakulic informs the reader why she had the urge to write about war crimes from the point of view of the criminals tried in the Hague. Her main mission has always been to explain to a wider audience who knew little about the Balkans why the war started. In other words, she became a self-proclaimed interpreter of the Balkan history and culture. Depicting both political regimes as totalitarian and manipulative, Drakulic presents herself as a person who knows more than others due to having access to transcendental knowledge.


If we want to answer the question of who remembers, where, in which context and against what, it is enough to open the last page of the book under the title ‘acknowledgements’ to get an insight into who pays for Drakulic’s freedom of thought. In order to write her book, she has been awarded several grants by German, Dutch, Swedish and Austrian cultural institutions, which undoubtedly explains her endorsing attitude towards the Hague as an unquestionable arbitrary of good and evil. Drakulic also reaffirms the old motto of intellectual’s work to create a vision of a perfect society and a better and more just world.


b) The question of intellectual’s ethics


It was Esbenshade who pointed out that writers profit from their memories. Personal accounts acquire the aura of counter-memories, which then suggest that memory operates under the pressure of challenges and alternatives (Zemon Davis and Starn 1989:2). Having found a speaking and remembering space in the Western publishing industry, Drakulic reinforces the old divide between reason and emotions and blames the collective mentality of the Balkans for the recent war. ‘The history we learned – which was not in fact history at all – made it easier for us to abandon reason in favour of pure emotions’ (Drakulic 2004:13). When it comes to gender issues, Drakulic finds herself embedded in the geographical determinism claiming that in the Balkans men treat their wives as nothing more than cattle (Drakulic 2004: 53).


Regardless of the political system, intellectuals are not free from political and economic power and influence. Their thought and argumentation claim to be essentially independent from social determination and able to raise themselves above the level of social pressures and necessities (Bauman 1987:164). However, their apparent autonomy is only illusory, argues Bauman. This idea of a transcendental reason, not affected by the social context, has been taken over from the Age of Enlightenment. In reality, the intelligentsia does not represent transcendence – it reflects a conflict between the transcendent and the historically determined (Konrád and Szelényi 1979).


Being on the social margin, where it is possible to criticize the political power, has been expanded and institutionalized into a fully legitimate and subsidized social sanctuary (Pels 1999:63). What this means is that there are institutions within civil society which pay intellectuals to challenge and deconstruct the political system. Capitalist society itself subsidizes the intelligentsia to engage in continual subversion of set conventions. Such discourse of nomadism has recently become a cognitive tool of the educated elite. The stranger, traveller, nomad and exile – these all add up to a quintessential role-model of the modern intellectual.


Many nomadic intellectuals can be criticized for pretending to speak for others and for giving the impression of presenting the totality of their own culture – Drakulic included. They claim to represent the ‘real’ displaced people, such as migrant workers, refugees, illegal aliens, victims of political exile, ethnic cleansing or economic poverty. But the truth is, because of their privileged social position, they stay well away from the groups they speak for (Pels 1999:78).


3.     Reading the Hague Tribunal


a) Idealism and cynicism surrounding the ICTY


After society has been struck with a mass-scale violence, there arises the need for purification and healing. National and international trials seek to achieve social healing by identifying the source of violence and expelling those responsible for it from society as a punishment (Humphrey 2002:127). The perpetrator becomes a victim of community's judgement and punishment so that the society can make a more moral future. According to Western liberal legal tradition, the rule of law means that every citizen is accountalble for their crimes. The principle of individual accountalbility also makes sure that nobody can be held responsible collectively on the basis of their identity. Individuals prosecuted and punished at trials are believed to restore faith in the legal system and enrourage a gradual process of forgiveness.


The ICTY itself has received both praise and serious critique. In terms of its idealism, it is worthy to build an international code of morality and human rights. It can be especially commended for changing the definition of what crimes against humanity are by including rape and sexual enslavement. In terms of legal flaws, the ICTY is criticized for its retroactivity, which means that people can be charged under the norms that had not been created at the time a crime was comitted. Another serious downside is its dependence on political views and wills of the members of the UN General Assembly. This seriously undermines ideals of impartiality and universal norms. Lastly, there is always a question whether the selection of individuals to prosecute was fair or not.


b) Collective vs. individual responsibility


Selectivity of the ICTY has further legal and moral implications. The cruical idea of the individual criminal responsibility embedded in the Western ideal of the rule of law is suppose to prevent the collective guilt. In trying to understand the collective consciousness which is so strong in the Balkans, one must refrain from both imposing the Western norms on a culturally different society and from being judgemental. Even if we accept Drakulic's argument that the war in the Balkans started because people there use a different pronoun – 'we' instead of 'I' – such a disparaging and simplistic explanation cannot account for the complex relationship between the political regime and the general public. Nor can prosecuting only individuals bring reconciliation into the region.


Humphrey argues that down-playing the collective responsibility of ethnic groups and emphasizing  the individual responsibility of perpetrators tends to limit the extent to which the political project of attrocity and genocide can be stigmatized. 'Only if genocide is seen as a political projects rather than as a cultural conflict can reconciliation occur through official repudiation' (Humphrey 2002:139). He points out that the ICTY, by labelling people either as gulity or innocent, undermines the recognition of community's complicity, which is integral to the success of projects of ethnically clean countries. Naturally, he argues further, collective responsibility shoud not be 'ethnicized' but also state political projects cannot be expressed in 'ethnicist' ideology.


4.     Conclusion


The aim of this essay was to challenge the ‘naturalness’ of the Hague Tribunal and intellectuals who represent it in such a way. I wanted to show that regardless of the idealistic principle to guard international human rights, the ICTY has many ambiguities surrounding it, mainly resulting from its dependence on political and economic pressures exerted from the UN body which founded it in the first place.


The role of intellectuals, such as Drakulic, needs to be questioned as well, as they have an immense influence on the general public to who they represent institutions like the Tribunal. Ambiguities and subtleties which are results of competing socio-political forces usually remain unstated, because a wide audience needs factual, straight-forward information and because the Hague needs to legitimize its own existence and power. It is not unfamiliar that the Western discourse embraces a marginal intellectual who has been exiled from their own country – a place from the other side of the cultural divide. Due to the impossibility of speech in their country of origin, these intellectuals find their place in the ‘civilized’ Europe. However, they usually trade their independence of thought for a position of power and prestige because a new discourse allows only an already-made stereotypes about the Other.


Lastly, cultural representations are always related to the distribution of power. The Hague Tribunal is a typical example of the Western cultural imperialism in which Western norms are imposed on a society which is culturally constituted in a different way. Fighting for the world to be a better and more moral place is praise-worthy – and for that the international community has to be commended – however, it is vital to make sure that the Balkans is not judged and labelled a ‘primitive and backward’ tribal region because of its difference. If there is no space for cultural differences at institutions such as the ICTY, one has to wonder if it is possible to have a fair trial when the defendant does not speak the same ‘language’.




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