Opinion: The Mladic convictions are a victory for international justice – but overall, the agenda is going backwards

By on 05/12/2017 | Updated on 28/01/2022
The Srebrenica memorial, which lists the names of all those killed there by forces under Ratko Mladic's command. In the background are the graves of those whose bodies could be identified (Image courtesy: Nadina Ronc, © 2017).

Last month, the Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes including genocide. But Nadina Ronc fears that his conviction may represent a high water mark for the prosecution of war crimes, not the beginning of a new age of international justice

Last month the “Butcher of Bosnia”, Ratko Mladic, was found guilty of 10 out of 11 counts by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. It had taken 14 years to arrest him in Serbia, where he lived and received a pension. But eventually the Serbian government’s desire for EU membership outweighed its aversion to seeing Mladic publicly tried; the EU had made clear that Serbia’s EU membership application could not proceed as long as he remained at liberty. So the Serbs handed him over; and six years on, he has been sentenced to life imprisonment. Yet whilst his sentencing may help deter some war crimes in future conflicts, we have missed the opportunity to set down red lines that would make it clear to combatants that acts of terrorism, genocide and deliberate targeting of civilians are likely to result in them facing charges.

The ICTY, the first war crimes tribunal since the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, was established to bring to justice those that committed “serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia” during the country’s break-up in the 1990s. Set up by the UN, it operated for some 24 years.

Mladic’s conviction does at least show that, given strong evidence and the ability to get the accused into an international court, justice can be done. The judges heard an overwhelming amount of evidence and witness statements. And having stood by as the 1990s war ravaged Bosnia and Herzegovina, the international community felt that they couldn’t afford to stay silent: the EU’s intervention was critical in getting Mladic into the dock.

However, the nature of Mladic’s convictions weakens their ability to influence governments’ decisions on whether to intervene in future conflicts.

An opportunity missed

To understand the severity of his crimes, one has to look at what he was found guilty of. As the chief of staff of the army of Republica Sprska, the Serb-dominated east of Bosnia, Mladic oversaw the four-year Siege of Sarajevo, using artillery fire, mortars and snipers indiscriminately: more than 10,000 civilians were killed. And he was responsible for the murder of over 8500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the UN ‘safe haven’ of Srebrenica in July 1995. These actions resulted in his conviction for persecution, extermination, murder, and forcible transfer in municipalities throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was also convicted for all these offences plus genocide in Srebrenica, and for murder, terror and unlawful attacks on civilians in Sarajevo.

However, Mladic was acquitted of the charge of genocide in six municipalities around Bosnia-Herzegovina – and this is significant, for it enables people to claim that genocide occurred only in Srebrenica. Mladic’s soldiers used targeted murder, rape and torture to terrorise Bosnian Muslims and force them to flee. The fact that this has not resulted in a conviction for genocide lets the international community off the hook, permitting countries to maintain the fiction that they didn’t stand aside whilst Republica Sprska forces committed large-scale, organised genocide in a European country. And it weakens the pressure on countries to intervene in future such conflicts, as there’s less risk that they’ll be seen later as guilty by association for adopting a policy of non-interference as one side in a civil war tries to eliminate civilian communities associated with another.

Stepping back from global justice

Meanwhile, there are few signs that the international community is willing to act robustly to deter military and militia commanders from committing atrocities. Three years after Da’esh – the so-called Islamic State – carried out mass murders of northern Iraq’s minority Yazidi community, in October the UN Security Council finally created an investigative team to gather evidence. But in Syria, Chinese and Russian opposition has prevented the UN from referring potential war crimes to the International Criminal Court, despite plenty of evidence against Bashar al-Assad – such as the well-documented use by government forces of chemical weapons against civilian populations.

Meanwhile, in Burma the Rohingya minority are being targeted by forces linked to the government, in what the UN has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Yet whilst the USA has made aggressive noises and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sent aid, most national leaders seem keen to keep their distance. UK prime minister Theresa May went so far as to say that the crisis “looks like ethnic cleansing”, but the careful wording frees her government from the immediate responsibility to act.

The misrule of law

The ICTY has not been perfect. It will be criticised because Slobodan Praljak, who was responsible for the torture of Bosnian Muslims in concentration camps and oversaw the destruction of the 427-year-old Old Bridge in Mostar, was able to smuggle poison into the courtroom and very publicly kill himself when his appeal was rejected. And those who expected its work to foster reconciliation have largely been disappointed; that was not its aim.

However, it did – along with the Rwanda tribunal – represent an attempt to enforce the laws of war. But since then, the international political landscape has changed: the UN has been weakened by its sidelining during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the Security Council is increasingly divided – reflecting the growth in tensions between Russia and the West, and their increasing tendency to end up on opposing sides of conflicts such as those in Syria and Burma.

As those tensions between Russia and the West play out, major nations are increasingly likely to play a role in civil wars and local conflicts; and they should take an increasing amount of the responsibility for war crimes committed by their allies. But the commitment to global justice is generally lost amongst the conflicting agendas of national representatives in key forums such as the UN Security Council.

Ratko Mladic’s convictions represent a victory for truth and the rule of law. The danger is that they are not the harbingers of a new era of global justice, but the highlights of a now-faded international effort to hold war criminals to account.

About Nadina Ronc

Nadina Ronc is an internationally-educated journalist and political analyst; she originally left Bosnia as a refugee and is based in London. She has worked as a news producer for CNBC and Fox Business Network, and is a regular contributor as a writer and commentator on international TV networks.

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