The wheels of justice turn slowly but they grind nevertheless. Last week, Radovan Karadzic, the “Butcher of Bosnia,” was found guilty of genocide and other crimes against humanity committed in the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995, and sentenced to 40 years in prison — effectively a death sentence for the 70-year-old man. His conviction will provide some solace to the thousands of people who survived his terror and to those who lost loved ones to the savagery he helped perpetrate. Sadly, many Serbs prefer to see him as a victim and proof that the court was engaged in victor’s justice.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is an ad hoc, U.N.-established court empowered to hear trials related to crimes committed during the breakup of that country, a period that lasted from 1991 to 2001. During Karadzic’s 500-day trial, the court heard evidence from 586 witnesses and saw more than 11,000 exhibits. The verdict was a year in the making. On March 24, the judges found him guilty of 10 of 11 charges — charges that included extermination, persecution, forcible transfer, terror and hostage taking.
The tribunal found that Karadzic committed the crimes through participation in four “joint criminal enterprises,” among which was a plot from October 1991 to November 1995 “to permanently remove Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory.” While the atrocities were committed over an extended period of time, the most appalling act was the Srebrenica massacre, during which more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered by the Bosnian Serb forces that he commanded.
In July 1995, some 30,000 Bosnian Muslims retreated to Srebrenica, a town ostensibly protected by a 100-man U.N. peacekeeping force from the Netherlands. Serb forces overran the town and, with the peacekeepers looking on, separated the boys and men from the girls and women, then took the 8,000 males away to execute them. The court ruled that Karadzic was the only person in the Serb Republic with the authority to intervene; instead, it found that he personally ordered the Muslims killed, and that he had, along with other Serb leaders, “the intent to destroy the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.”
Other atrocities included taking peacekeepers as hostages to deter NATO attacks after Serb forces assaulted civilian communities, and the siege of Sarajavo, a city once heralded as the “Jerusalem of Europe,” the pride of the multiethnic Yugoslavia and the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics. During the breakup of Yugoslavia, Sarajevo became a symbol of suffering and cruelty: It endured the longest siege of a city in the history of modern warfare (1,425 days), during which snipers and artillery targeted civilians. The court ruled the Karadzic was consistently informed of the tactics employed throughout the war and was responsible for the strategy that employed those horrific tactics to his political ends.
The court’s ruling has been applauded for reminding the world that justice will catch up with those who perpetrate such horrors. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the verdicts were a “historic” moment for the people of the former Yugoslavia and the international justice system.
Yugoslavia’s Serb communities showed their anger by taking to the streets and denouncing the court for selective justice and punishing Karadzic because he was a Serb. The president of the Serb Republic this month honored Karadzic by naming a student dormitory after him. For his part, Karadzic continues to protest his innocence, saying he was unaware of the deeds committed in his name by rogue elements and could not be held responsible for their behavior.
Looking at Karadzic the man it is difficult to understand his connection to the inhumanities inflicted on the Muslim community. He was a psychiatrist and poet, who early in his career decried nationalism. In 1989, however, he founded the Serb political party in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and began planning the creation of a Serb republic if Yugoslavia splintered. He got that chance two years later and began the journey that would end in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Yugoslav Tribunal will now hear Karadzic’s appeal, along with the case against Ratko Mladic, the former head of the Bosnian Serb army, who also faces charges of genocide and war crimes. His verdict is expected next year.
Perversely, the world may owe Karadzic a debt. The Yugoslav wars were marked by forced relocation, internment, ethnic cleansing and mass slaughter. Karadzic, along with his fellow conspirators, reminded us that a savagery that many had thought dead and buried — “a history lesson” — remains very much alive and ever ready to resurface. As political campaigns the world over tap a vicious vein of anxiety and anger, it is important to acknowledge that such sentiment is easily and readily transmuted into action. We must remain ever vigilant against such tendencies, call them out when we see them coalescing into concrete form, and ready to hold responsible those who encourage or profit from such actions.
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