Rule of law and accountability finally delivered for war crimes

Published : 22 Jun 2021 08:29 PM | Updated : 23 Jun 2021 12:50 AM

On 8 June, 2021 former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, also known as the "Butcher of Bosnia", lost his appeal against a 2017 conviction for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was the UN Tribunal’s final verdict on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. He was one of the last suspects to face trial at the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.  

It may be recalled that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by the United Nations to prosecute the perpetrators of the war crimes committed during the armed conflicts in Yugoslavia in the first half of the 1990s. It may be added that this Tribunal, an ad hoc Court was established in The Hague in Netherlands through the UN Security Council through its Resolution 827 passed on 25 May, 1993. 

It was also decided that this Court would have primary jurisdiction over four clusters of crimes committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991- grave breaches of  the Geneva Conventions, any violation of laws or customs associated with war, any act which could be termed as genocide, consistent with the Genocide Convention and any crime that could be considered as an act against the principles of international humanitarian law and undertaken against humanity. It was also ordained that the maximum sentence it could impose was imprisonment for life.

Subsequently, a total of 161 persons were indicted by the Court. The final indictments were issued in December 2004, the last of which were confirmed and unsealed in the spring of 2005. In 1994 the first indictment was issued against the Bosnian-Serb concentration camp commander Dragan Nikolić. This was followed on 13 February 1995 by two indictments comprising 21 individuals which were issued against a group of 21 Bosnian-Serbs charged with committing atrocities against Muslim and Croat civilian prisoners.

The UN Court upheld the life sentence of Ratko Mladic for his role in the killing of Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. The massacre, in an enclave supposed to be under UN protection, was the worst atrocity in Europe since World War Two.

Having been Bangladesh Ambassador to Bosnia- Herzegovina between 1998 and 2000 I had the opportunity to meet relatives of those who had suffered in the hands of Mladic. I also visited the graveyard to pay my respects to those- mostly Muslims- who had left this world due to this crime.

Subsequently, for the last two decades I have been following the legal process related to discovering the whereabouts of this criminal and bringing him under the legal process.

It would be useful at this point to recall the evolving dynamics that has finally led to justice being delivered at last.

Between 1991 and 1999 the socialist state of Yugoslavia broke up violently into separate entities covering the territories of what were then Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia. Of all the conflicts, the war in Bosnia was the bloodiest as, ethnically and religiously, it was the most divided.

Yugoslav army units, withdrawn from Croatia and renamed the Bosnian Serb Army, carved out a huge swathe of Serb-dominated territory in Bosnia. More than a million Bosniaks and Croats were driven from their homes in so-called ethnic cleansing, and Serbs suffered too. By the time the war ended in 1995, at least 100,000 people had been killed.

In July 1995, troops commanded by Mladic, totally against a free and independent Bosnia and agitated by air strikes from NATO forces intended to force compliance with a UN ultimatum to remove heavy weapons from the Sarajevo area, overran and occupied the UN guarded areas of Srebrenica and Zepa. At Srebrenica, over 40,000 Bosniak Muslims had sought safety after being expelled by Serbian extremists. Of them, nearly 8,300 were murdered on Mladic’s order.  His actions during the war led to many dubbing him "The Butcher of Bosnia".

Subsequently, on 24 July 1995, Mladic was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for genocide, crimes against humanity, and numerous war crimes (including crimes relating to the alleged sniping campaign against civilians in Sarajevo). On 16 November 1995, the charges were expanded to include charges of war crimes for the attack on the UN-declared safe area of Srebrenica.

A fugitive from the ICTY, Mladic however went into hiding. There were many speculations but no one could actually determine his whereabouts. After the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic, another extreme rightist Serbian leader, in 2001, many claimed that Mladic was still protected by Serb security services and the army. However, Serbia's failure to bring Mladic to justice seriously harmed its relationship with the European Union. No amount of NATO action or UN demands, or even a $5 million bounty announced by Washington, could bring him in.

It was revealed in December 2004 that the Army of Republika Srpska had been harboring and protecting Mladic until the summer of 2004, despite repeated and public pleas to collaborate with the ICTY and apprehend war criminals. On 6 December that year, NATO also informed that Mladic had visited his wartime bunker during the summer in order to celebrate Army of Republika Srpska Day.

In June 2005, it was also alleged in a British newspaper- ‘The Times’- that Mladic had demanded  US Dollar 5 million "compensation" to be given to his family and bodyguards if he gave himself up to the ICTY in the Hague. In January 2006, a Belgrade court indicted 10 people for aiding Mladic in hiding from 2002 to January 2006. An investigation showed Mladic had been spending most of his time in a suburban area in the Serbian capital- Belgrade.

The inability on the part of the Serbian authorities led to serious differences with the European Union authorities. This eventually forced the Serbs to intensify their hunt and in October 2010, Serbia increased the reward for Mladic’s capture from Euro 5 million to Euro 10 million. Mladic was subsequently arrested on 26 May 2011 in a township in northern Serbia. 

The dynamics however did not touch the finish line at that point. Following his arrest, Mladic appeared before the Belgrade Higher Court for a hearing on whether he was fit to be extradited to The Hague. Judge Milan Dilparić suspended necessary interrogation due to his poor health.

However, the court ruled that he was fit to be extradited on 27 May. According to the Serbian Health Ministry, a team of prison doctors described his health as stable following checkups. Mladic was extradited to The Hague on 31 May 2011, and his trial formally opened in The Hague on 16 May 2012.

It needs to be noted here that Mladic was significantly arrested on the same day that Catherine Ashton, the EU's representative, visited Belgrade. His arrest improved relations with the EU, which had been concerned that Serbia was sheltering Mladic. 

In 2017, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted Mladic on 10 charges: one of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and four of violations of the laws or customs of war. He was cleared of one count of genocide.

The ruling has been widely welcomed by a range of world leaders, including the UN’s Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet and United States President Joe Biden.

Michelle Bachelet praised the decision. She said in a statement that it “highlights the determination of the international justice system to ensure accountability no matter how long it may take – in Mladic’s case, nearly three decades after he committed his appalling crimes”. Bachelet also urged officials and the press to “refrain from revisionist narratives, divisive rhetoric and incitement to hatred” in the wake of the ruling. “Mladic’s crimes were the abhorrent culmination of hatred stoked for political gain. Today’s decision is about his individual responsibility for his dreadful acts, not about collective punishment or apportioning guilt to any particular community,” she said.

U.S. President Joe Biden has hailed the “historic” confirmation of Mladic’s life sentence. “This historic judgment shows that those who commit horrific crimes will be held accountable,” Biden said in a statement. “It also reinforces our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world,” he added. He has also observed that he hopes that the “judgment provides some solace to all those who are grieving.”

Alice Wairimu Nderitu, Special Adviser to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the prevention of genocide, has also observed correctly that the final judicial decision “provides historical certainty and finality for victims and survivors and sends a hugely important message throughout the Western Balkans where we see genocide denial and the glorification of convicted criminals such as Mladic not only persisting but increasing,” This was done through a joint statement with Bachelet.

Heiko Maas, Germany’s Foreign Minister has similarly backed the judge’s decision to confirm the life sentence for Mladic as a “triumph”. This has been affirmed through a tweet that he was “relieved” by The Hague tribunal’s verdict and hoped the rejection of Mladic’s appeal would be “a certain consolation for the victims and the bereaved”.

Charles Michel, the President of the European Council has also fittingly described the ruling as an important step to provide justice to the victims of the genocide and has confirmed through a tweet that “It will help us all put the painful past behind us and put the future first”. This will bring hope for Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. It has been an example of spearheading the shift from impunity to accountability through the exercise of Rule of Law.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance