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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Role of Social Identity in Resistance to International Criminal Law: The Case of Serbia and the ICTY


This paper explores antipathy to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) by Serbians, who feel that not just Slobodan Milosevic but the whole country of Serbia is on trial. The author proposes that social identity and self-categorization, as elaborated primarily by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, are intervening mechanisms that help explain this negative social reaction to international criminal law. This pair of social psychological theories are used to argue that it is the belief in a group threat which produces a strong self-categorization as a group member and predicts the function of social identity mechanisms. In the Serbian case, this paper argues that there was far less social identification at the national level, and greater diversity of national political opinion, before the NATO bombing in 1999. However, the NATO bombing constituted an inescapable threat at the national level, creating an atmosphere in which Serbians felt they were all treated alike regardless of their political opinion; this group-level, inescapable threat produced a greater sense of in-group homogeneity and identification. Rather than differentiating themselves primarily against the Milosevic regime, Serbs who were previously dissidents changed their salient out-group and began differentiating themselves primarily against the Western countries participating in the bombing. The significance of notions of rebelliousness and victimhood in the Serbian self-stereotype helped further define an international stance that rejected the kind of post-war solution offered by the ICTY.

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