A United Nations war crimes tribunal closed a final chapter in the Bosnian war, sentencing Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić to life in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. The verdict came 22 years after Europe’s worst conflict since World War II, triggered by the breakup of the former Soviet Union and its satellites.
At the center of the case was the planned murder of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in and around the town of Srebrenica by Serbian forces under Mladic’s command, almost under the noses of Dutch peacekeepers there to protect them.
In its last prosecution before it is dissolved later this year, the United Nations Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) delivered its verdict on the third best-known leader of the Serb-side in the multiple conflicts that erupted as Yugoslavia broke apart into largely nationalist components: Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia itself. (Read the summary of the judgement here).
Mladić, 74, was convicted of atrocities against Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and other non-Serbs during the brutal Bosnian War of 1992 to 1995 that followed almost seamlessly from the war over Croatia’s separation in 1991. Mladić’s political boss, the Bosnian Serb separatist Radovan Karadžić, was convicted on similar charges last year. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević was indicted but died before a verdict could be handed down on his role in the drive to carve out an ethnically homogenous Serb nation.
“What started out as a vote to secede by Bosnia ultimately became the locus of some of the most horrific crimes committed since WWII,” Laura Silber, the co-author of Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, told WikiTribune.
Mladić was found guilty of 10 out of 11 charges in a dramatic conclusion to a multi-decade campaign for international justice seen as vital to defend the values of post-war Europe and prove that those responsible for the worst atrocities to occur in Europe since World War II would not escape justice.
Why does Mladić’s conviction matter?
Prosecuting Mladić, Milošević and Karadžić was seen as a vital test of the international judicial order in the post-war era, particularly given the diplomatic failures to prevent the war and the likelihood of further nationalist conflicts.
It may also highlight a shift in attitudes to tackling international justice crises since Bosnia, given the lack of similar action over the Russian invasion of Crimea and the intrusion of Russian-backed rebels into eastern Ukraine in recent years.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Mladić’s conviction was a “momentous victory for justice” and added: “Today’s verdict is a warning to the perpetrators of such crimes that they will not escape justice, no matter how powerful they may be nor how long it may take. They will be held accountable.”
Mladić’s sentence was read out by presiding judge Alphons Orie, who removed the defendant from the courtroom after an angry outburst when the former Serb general shouted: “this is all lies, you are all liars.” The “Butcher of Bosnia,” as he is known, watched the final proceedings on a screen elsewhere in the courthouse, The New York Times reported from The Hague.
‘The crimes committed rank among the most heinous known to humankind’ – Judge Alphons Orie
The ICTY held Mladić responsible for commanding the forces that perpetrated some of the worst crimes of the Bosnian War. Among these were the almost four-year siege of Bosnian capital Sarajevo – the longest siege of a capital city in modern military history, which killed almost 14,000 people, including over 5,000 civilians – and the Srebrenica massacre. A lawyer said Mladić will appeal the genocide conviction at the war crimes tribunal.
“The crimes committed rank among the most heinous known to humankind, and include genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity,” Orie said in reading out a summary.
“Many of these men and boys were cursed, insulted, threatened, forced to sing Serb songs and beaten while awaiting their execution,” he said, referring to Srebrenica.
City under siege
Living conditions were appalling for civilians trapped in Sarajevo, recalls Mark Brennock, a national-award winning former journalist who covered the last days of the Siege of Sarajevo for The Irish Times.
“What became normal for them was living in apartments with no windows, living in basements, no heating, no running water, day after day,” Brennock told WikiTribune. “They just felt really vulnerable down in the city, being fired upon with shells, being bombed. Day to day life was just a misery.”
The feeling among Sarajevo residents during the siege, Brennock said, was that “the world was watching and doing nothing.”
Mladić’s guilty verdict got a mixed reaction from Balkan leaders and citizens. Bosnian Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic welcomed the conviction, saying it would act as a “deterrent to all those who dream of future wars and continue to stoke ethnic tensions.”
In Serbia, which is seeking European Union membership but where nationalism is still rife, reactions were split. A widely watched pro-government television channel called the verdict “shameful” and biased against Serbs. Serbian nationalists often portray the ICTY as anti-Serb because most of the people it has convicted are Serbs.
Alksandar Vucic, the country’s president, echoed that sentiment, saying he was not surprised by the verdict. However, he called on Serbs to stop dwelling on the past: “We are ready to accept our responsibility (for war crimes) while the others are not.”
Serge Brammertz, the chief prosecutor of the UN’s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, said the court’s decision was not a verdict against all Serbs. “Mladic’s guilt is his and his alone,” he told reporters at The Hague.
‘It is a step forward…a step toward closure…for some of the victims and survivors of his crimes.”– Laura Silber
In Lazarevo, where Mladić was caught after a decade and a half on the run, local residents were dismissive of the verdict and supportive of the genocidal general. However, Serbian liberals applauded the conviction and called on the nation to accept its role in the brutal war, the Associated Press reported.
“It’s difficult to look at this as a pure victory for justice. He was so long at liberty and so long living a life in hiding, but yet a life,” Silber said. “But it is a step forward. And a step toward closure, perhaps, for some of the victims and survivors of his crimes.”
Further reading on the former Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars:
- The Death of Yugoslavia, a BBC book and documentary television series, by former BBC correspondent Allan Little and former Financial Times correspondent Laura Silber. Silber and Little covered the war from all aspects and brought together the definitive view of a conflict that spread from the old internal border between former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Serbia into the worst conflict in Europe since World War II, in Bosnia.
- The Fall of Yugoslavia, by British journalist and Balkans expert Misha Glenny. He has spent much of his career in the Balkans both in the communist era and since and witnessed the breakdown of Yugoslavia first-hand.
- Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War, by Ed Vulliamy. A British journalist for The Observer who bore witness to some of the worst atrocities of the war and some the strongest images to come out of the Bosnian conflict, such as the discovery of detention camps with hungry Bosnian soldiers.
- Endgame: The Betrayal and fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s worst massacre since World War II, by David Rohde. Rohde, then reporting for the Christian Science Monitor, got closer than anyone to Srebrenica and to understanding, and eventually uncovering, the massacre of Muslim men and boys.