A United Nations (UN) war crimes tribunal convicted former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić of war crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity, in a widely expected verdict delivered today at The Hague. Mladić, 74, was sentenced to life in prison for his part in the atrocities committed against Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and other non-Serbs during the brutal Bosnian War of 1992-1995.
Following the fracturing of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the creation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, thousands of Bosnian Serbs – led by Radovan Karadžić, Mladić’s political boss, and supported by former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević – fought to carve out an ethnically homogenous Serb nation.
[Silber comment “3:20]
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found Mladić guilty of 10 out of 11 charges in a dramatic conclusion to a multi-decade effort that has tried to mete out justice to those responsible for the worst atrocities to occur in Europe since WWII.
In 2016, Karadžić was sentenced to 40 years in prison by the ICTY for his leading role in the 1995 massacre of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, according to The Guardian. Milošević – also charged by the ICTY with genocide and crimes against humanity in connection to the wars in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo – died in his cell in The Hague before his trial concluded.
Why does Mladić’s conviction matter now?
Prosecuting Mladić, Milošević and Karadžić was seen as a vital test of the international judicial order.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein labelled Mladić’s conviction a “momentous victory for justice” and said: “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 for an angry outburst. The “Butcher of Bosnia”, as he is known, watched the final proceedings on a screen elsewhere in the courthouse, The New York Times reports.
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.
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 in a phone interview. “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.”
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 blasted the decision as “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 the sentiment, claiming 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,” he said.
Serge Brammertz, the chief prosecutor of the U.N.’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.
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.
Who was Mladic?
1. How significant is this verdict? Why does this matter, over 20 years later?
2. Will Mladic actually serve time in prison?
3. Has this UN court fulfilled its role effectively?
4. Could such a verdict actually inflame Serb nationalism?