The 'Butcher of Bosnia' is not the only guilty one

The 'Butcher of Bosnia' is not the only guilty one
Opinion: An international court recently upheld the life sentence of the "Butcher of Bosnia" Ratko Mladic, but we should ask why the international community failed to stop these crimes from happening, writes Anna-Christina Schmidl.
4 min read
23 Jun, 2021
Ex-Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic's appeal against his genocide conviction over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre was rejected on 8 June, 2021. [Getty]

Like the guns of the Bosnian war that fell silent after the agreement in Dayton, Ohio on 14 December 1995 that ended the worst bloodletting on European soil since World War II, Ratko Mladic was uncharacteristically quiet while Judge Nyambe of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals confirmed his life sentence earlier this month.

Occasionally, he would shake his head to protest the Court's upholding of his convictions of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Long gone are the violent outbursts, the political monologues and diatribes, for which the "Butcher of Bosnia" has been expelled from the courtroom more than once.

The appeals judgment closes the final chapter of legal reckoning with the horrors of the Bosnian war, and of a judicial saga spanning almost a decade, commencing with Mladic's extradition to The Hague in May 2011. 

"Ratko Mladic will spend the rest of his days in prison, but he will die unrepentant"

The Serbian government eventually came to consider the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army and self-proclaimed defender of an ethnically cleansed "Greater Serbia", who had spent more than 15 years in hiding, a liability in its accession talks with the EU. 

In 2017, the Trial Chamber of the then-International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (the IRMCT being its successor) convicted Mladic on one count of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity, and four counts of violations of the laws and customs of war. The Appeals Chamber's confirmation of the trial judgment is final and cannot be appealed.

The rulings describe, over thousands of pages, Ratko Mladic ordering the slaughter of 8,000 Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, boasting of giving "the town to the Serb people as a gift," laying siege to the city of Sarajevo for almost four years - the longest in modern history - while deliberately bombing and shooting its civilians; and his soldiers torching, raping and plundering the land.

Mladic is part of a larger problem

Ratko Mladic will spend the rest of his days in prison, but he will die unrepentant. The poisoned chalice of ethnic hatred crafted by the general and his co-conspirators Milosevic and Karadzic - resurrecting the death of Serbian Prince Lazar at the hands of the Ottoman army during the 1389 Battle of Kosovo - is still passed from mouth to mouth. 

The district of Kalinovik, where Mladic was born, proudly proclaims to be the home of a "hero", a modern-day crusader protecting European civilisation from the threat of Islam. Politicians openly embrace a form of historical revisionism and genocide denial that is often a precursor to renewed mass atrocities.

Bosnia today is a dysfunctional, divided, perhaps doomed state, with the political leadership of the Republic of Srpska - one half of the country - still firmly committed to separatism. If ever one were poised to reflect upon the limits of international justice, a short visit to Bosnia should suffice.

"Politicians openly embrace a form of historical revisionism and genocide denial that is often a precursor to (renewed) mass atrocities"

But there is another, bitter irony at the heart of the fratricidal war that tore apart the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The UN Security Council created the Yugoslavia tribunal in May 1993, two years into the fighting, but it took another two and a half years, and many more deaths, for the war to come to an end.

Why did the international community, in 1993, content itself with setting up a tribunal knowing full well that some of the crimes within its jurisdiction were still to be committed? At best, it was a sign of weakness, diluting the claim that a "New World Order", based on the peaceful settlement of disputes, rose from the ashes of the Soviet Empire. At worst, it was a fig leaf to cover up a lack of political will and expediency.

Be that as it may - the long list of Mladic's convictions, albeit a milestone for international justice, may ultimately be seen as yet another failure to deliver on the promise "never again."

Anna-Christina Schmidl is a human rights researcher and writer currently based in Germany. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AnnaCSchmidl


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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.