Justice in the former Yugoslavia

The horrific civil war in Yugoslavia and the especially bloody battles in Bosnia fought just two decades ago in the 1990s feel like ancient history. The world revisited the reality and immediacy of that conflict in recent weeks as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia delivered verdicts on some of the perpetrators of the worst atrocities during that fighting. Those rulings are vital to remind us that such injustices can and do occur, and to warn the guilty, along with those who contemplate similar acts, that they will be held accountable for their misdeeds.

On Nov. 22, Ratko Mladic, former leader of the Bosnian Serb army, was sentenced to life in prison on charges of genocide for acts committed during the Bosnian war, which raged from April 1992 to December 1995. This was an especially gruesome theater in the contest over the former Yugoslavia, one in which all the ethnic groups who had once lived together peacefully — Serbs, Croats and Muslims — fought for control or their own independence. It was a savage struggle that turned one of the most promising examples of the socialist experiment into a blood-soaked battlefield. That civil war resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them innocent civilians, often women and children, 2.2 million people displaced, an estimated 12,000 to 20,000 women raped, and the dismembering of the country formerly known as Yugoslavia.

Mladic was charged with two counts of genocide and nine crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role in efforts to carve out a Serbian mini-state, a project that required the eviction of all non-Serbs from that territory. His methods ranged from besieging the city of Sarajevo with blockades and random acts of terror (artillery attacks and sniper fire) against its inhabitants, the establishment of concentration camps and mass executions — as many as 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed when Bosnian Serb forces took over the city of Srebrenica. It is estimated that 10,000 people died during the siege of Sarajevo.

Mladic fled after the war and remained free but in hiding, until he was arrested in northern Serbia in May 2011. He was extradited to The Hague tribunal soon after and a trial began in 2012. The hearings included more than 500 witnesses and nearly 10,000 exhibits, among them Mladic’s wartime diaries, which recorded in meticulous detail his meetings and thoughts, and DNA samples from mass graves discovered in northern Bosnia. Mladic refused to cooperate with the court, challenging its legitimacy and dismissing it as “satanic.”

In its verdicts, the tribunal found Mladic not guilty on one charge of genocide, but guilty on 10 other counts. True to form, Mladic harangued the court until his outburst forced the judge to remove him from the hearing. An appeal will follow.

The verdicts are long overdue. As prosecutor Serge Brammertz explained, “Today’s judgment is a milestone in the tribunal’s history and for international justice.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein added that the conviction of Mladic, “the epitome of evil,” was a “momentous victory for justice.”

Some Bosnians, particularly female victims of the conflict, were relieved that Mladic was convicted but angry at the one not guilty verdict. Serbia’s president, Aleksander Vucic, called on the people of his country to look forward, not back and to think about “how and in what way we will preserve peace and stability in the region.”

That comment underscores the most important purpose of this tribunal. Justice must be served, not only to offer the victims some relief — which it must be noted can only be limited — but to ensure that others know that they too will be held accountable for their acts and that no one is above the law. Radovan Karadzic, Mladic’s colleague and partner in waging genocide against the Bosnians, was sentenced to 40 years in prison a year before Mladic. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was arrested in 2001 for his role in the war, but he died before his trial could reach a verdict.

Serbs were not the only offenders. Over 160 people have been indicted by The Hague tribunal, and while the overwhelming majority are Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians, Macedonians and Montenegrins are also on the list. After Mladic was convicted, Croat Gen. Slobodan Praljak, one of six Croats found guilty by the court of war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed suicide in court by drinking poison after his appeal of his 20-year sentence was turned down.

The court has now wrapped up its work, and the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals will handle all remaining appeals. There is every reason to believe that yet more tribunals will need to be conducted to handle the savageries and crimes that accompanied the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, to name just two conflicts. Hopefully, instigators there and in future conflicts will know that they will be held accountable for their actions and that justice will be served, a knowledge that should forestall such inhumanities.