Last week I spent two days in The Hague with privileged behind-the-scenes access to the first international War Crimes tribunal to be established since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials held after World War II. This is formally known as The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and is run by the United Nations.

My host was former senior Sussex Police Officer, Brian Foster, now an Investigator in the Office of the Prosecutor. A brilliantly sharp, and extremely human man, Brian has himself interrogated many of the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians involved in the terrible fighting and “ethnic cleansing”.

The Hague
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia HQ in The Hague

Just days before the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War it was a poignant time. The issue of war crimes has always interested me, both in terms of what constitutes a War Crime, (technically it is breaching the Geneva Convention – but there are constant breaches in every war), and even more so, who decides to prosecute and when.

Those images from the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials still haunt me. Some of those grim Nazis were truly monsters, and in many ways it was very clear cut, certainly at least to me, the son of a Jewish mother who lost many of her family and friends in the concentration camps.

But it was strange seeing these people here in The Hague. I watched some of the trial of a group of charmers called Vujadin Propovic, Ljubisa Beara, Drago Nikolic, Ljubomir Borovcanin, Radivoje Miletic, Milan Gvero and Vinko Pandurevic. They ranged in age from 48 to 71, and were on trial on a raft of counts including genocide and conspiracty to commit genocide.

The indictment reads in part: “They are alleged to have committed the crime of extermination through the large scale systematic murder of Muslim men including, among others, 150 Bosnian Muslims at Cerska Valley, over 130 Bosnian Muslim men in Nova Kasaba, over 1,000 Bosnian Muslim men at Kravica Warehouse, approximately 500 Bosnian Muslim men in the school of Rocevici, approximately 1,000 Bosnian Muslim men at Orahovac, 1,200 Bosnian Muslim men detained at Kula School near Pilica, about 500 Bosnian Muslim males near Kozluk,” and it goes on…

If there is any difference between these trials today and those of Nurembeg it is perhaps in today’s murky world of international politics, some of those on trial were acting as puppets of other nations and other national interests. I don’t think it is insignificant that among the witness questioned at length by the prosecuting team are many international politicians, including former US president Bill Clinton and Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

And it might be worth just a few moments pause, before a radicalized Muslim suicide bomber sets of on a deadly mission against the West, for them to reflect that these trials here in The Hague are essentially the West taking responsibility for prosecuting those people who harmed Muslims in this war.

There are many fine novels and poems about war that I have read and been deeply touched by. One of the few truly humorous — and bitterly poignant ones — is Kurt Vonnegut Junior’s wonderful Slaughterhouse Five. Railing against futility, Vonnegut writes, “Wars are as impossible to stop as glaciers.”