In International Courts and Mass Atrocity: Narratives of War and Justice in CroatiaIvor Sokolić focuses on the contradictions that can arise between the ‘truths’ provided by international courts’ judgments and national war narratives, focusing on the understudied case of Croatia. This is an in-depth analysis that will be a must-read for transitional justice scholars and practitioners both in the Balkans and beyond, recommends Ebru Demir

International Courts and Mass Atrocity: Narratives of War and Justice in Croatia. Ivor Sokolić. Palgrave. 2019.

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Can an international court challenge a society’s ‘narrative of independence’? What happens when ‘truths’ provided through international courts’ judgments are in contradiction with national war narratives? And, under such circumstances, what are the chances of human rights norms taking root in these societies? Ivor Sokolić’s International Courts and Mass Atrocity: Narratives of War and Justice in Croatia tackles these questions by focusing on Croatia, an understudied case compared with two other countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia) involved in the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

The methodology undertaken and the data gathered play a central role in the book and shape the key arguments. Sokolić uses fieldwork research with ‘ordinary’ individuals and qualitative comparative analysis together in order to collect data, which is a novel approach (8). For the study, data was gathered from two focus groups: members of war veterans’ associations and pensioners; and (middle and high school) teachers (15). Sokolić explains the choice of the focus groups by underlining the fact that war veterans’ associations and pensioners are an influential and large part of Croatian civil society and they provide a good illustration of the highly politicised war narrative (16-17). In the same way, the teachers were targeted since they are important actors in teaching (and reproducing) national narratives to the next generations (16). Both focus groups therefore enable Sokolić to gain insight into the national war narratives prominent in Croatia today. Considerable use of the interview extracts from these focus groups also makes the book engaging for readers.

The book is centred around three key points. First, Sokolić underlines across the chapters that the decisions of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) run counter to the Croatian national meta-narrative. According to this narrative, ‘Croatia led an exclusively defensive war (Homeland War/Domovinski Rat) within its own borders’ (184). Unlike the ‘well-organised’ and ‘preplanned’ Serbian aggression, Croatians fought a purely defensive war, which prevents Croatia from being accused of having committed war crimes. This narrative polarises the positions of Serbia and Croatia in the war: whilst Serbia is considered to have been prepared for conflict far in advance, Croatia is portrayed as a country which was ‘caught up in’ a brutal war. The alleged unwillingness and unpreparedness of Croatia and the defensive nature of the war are used to excuse and relativise Croatian actions during the conflict (59).

Image Credit: ICTY Building (UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia CC BY 2.0)

As the book illustrates, ICTY trials and judgments substantially challenge this national narrative. ICTY ascertained that Croatian armed forces carried out joint criminal enterprise with the leadership of Herzeg-Bosnia (184), and Croatian generals were found guilty of crimes against humanity and violations of laws or customs of war during Operation Storm. Yet, these judgments have had no effect on the Croatian official narrative. Operation Storm, which is considered to be a war of independence for Croatia, was ‘exculpated’ by a ‘Declaration on Operation Storm’ adopted by the Croatian Parliament in 2000. This Declaration underlined the legitimate and liberating nature of the Croatian defence as opposed to the aggressive and conquering Serbian attacks.

Sokolić underlines how commemoration of the past endorses the ‘defensive’ nature of the war. To justify and excuse the alleged war crimes of Croatian convicts during Operation Storm, the Croatian narrative employs, for instance, an image of a Serbian baka (grandmother) with a rifle (66). This image is a significant part of the national narrative which supports the argument that every single Serbian (from child to elder) was armed and violent during the war. Such memorialisation justifies (and then excuses) the crimes which ‘a few Croatians’ might have committed as a result of blurring the distinction between combatants and civilians. Thus, under this narrative, these crimes by no means add up to war crimes; in such a context, the ICTY’s decisions largely fail to impact Croatian society.

The second issue with which the book deals is the position of Bosnia and Herzegovina within the Croatian official war narrative. Sokolić uses empirical findings to show how the involvement of Croatia in the Bosnian conflict is simply ignored or denied by the interviewees (189). On the contrary, in the prevailing narrative, Croatia is seen as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s saviour. In 2006, another ‘Declaration on Operation Storm’ by the Parliament described Croatia as the saviour of Bosnia and Herzegovina by preventing another Srebrenica in Bihać by allying with the Bosnian forces (187). Whereas Croatia differentiates itself from Serbia by claiming the aggressive and conquering nature of the Serbian attacks, Bosnia and Herzegovina is also considered different from Croatia by being ‘inferior’, ‘chaotic’ and ‘savage’ (191). By linking this narrative with the concept of Orientalism, Sokolić provides readers with an interesting and gripping discussion on ‘orientalism within the Balkans itself’.

Thirdly, the book gives insight into the role of ‘emotion’ in the transitional justice process of Croatia. Sokolić argues that the Croatian case illustrates ‘how pressure from below can hamper the spread of human rights norms, especially when combined with dominant and emotional everyday narratives’ (23, emphasis added). There is similar literature exploring where and how exactly justice is ‘hijacked’ in the domestic sphere (Subotic 2009; see also Clark 2014 and Nettelfield 2010). The book makes a contribution to this scholarship by placing a specific emphasis on ‘expressivist moments’ in the trials. The use of the suicide of Slobodan Praljak at the ICTY as an example to support this point is felicitous. Praljak’s suicide supports the Croatian national war narrative by showing (once again) that the ICTY is an incompetent and incapable court (192, 194). The public, media and elites use such a key expressivist moment to weaken the ICTY’s credibility and to strengthen Croatia’s victimhood narrative before such a court. Emotions impact and shape attitudes towards law (206), and under these circumstances, the trickle-down effects of international human rights norms do not occur in Croatia (208). As a result, the official war narrative once again prevails over the ICTY’s judgments.

Overall, International Courts and Mass Atrocity provides an in-depth analysis of the transitional justice process in Croatia. Sokolić not only works through the fault lines of the ICTY regarding the case of Croatia, but also sheds light on an issue that the international criminal justice system as a whole often neglects: namely, the strength of the local in creating and maintaining war narratives. The book is therefore a must-read for transitional justice scholars and practitioners both in the Balkans and beyond.


Ebru Demir is a third-year PhD student and Associate Tutor at University of Sussex, Law School. Her research areas are transitional justice; transformative justice; women, peace and security; and peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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