Ratko Mladić became the last Bosnian war criminal to be prosecuted, but can the country torn by ethnic and religious divides recover from its past?

By Zsófia Baumann

On 22 November, 2017, former Commander of the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS) Ratko Mladić was sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Mladić, as the Commander of the Main Staff of the VRS between 1992 and 1996, is responsible for the 1995 massacre of thousands of Bosniak men and boys in Srebrenica, the largest genocide in post-1945 Europe.

At The Hague, Mladić was convicted on 10 out of 11 counts: he was found guilty of 1) genocide and persecution, extermination, murder, the inhumane act of forcible transfer (deportation) in the area of Srebrenica in 1995; of 2) persecution, extermination, murder, deportation and inhumane act of forcible transfer in various municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina; of 3) murder, terror and unlawful attacks on civilians in Sarajevo; and of 4) hostage-taking of UN personnel. The ICTY acquitted him of the charge of genocide in six Bosnian municipalities in 1992.

The ICTY’s hunt for the fugitives

Ratko Mladić, or the “Butcher of Bosnia” as he is often referred to in the international community, was for long the most wanted criminal on the list of the ICTY. With the war in Bosnia coming to an end in the summer of 1995, Mladić was removed from his position at the top of the VRS by then president of Republika Srpska (the Serbian speaking part of Bosnia and Herzegovina) Radovan Karadžić. Karadžić, also a convicted war criminal currently serving a 40-year sentence, assumed personal command of the VRS, but had to rescind his order and hand the position back to Mladić, due to the latter’s popular support among Serbians. Mladić was finally removed one year later, at the end of 1996, by the next Republika Srpska president, Biljana Plavšić. However, his supporters within both the military and the civilian population did not let him down, and he managed to escape prosecution by hiding in army recreation compounds across Serbia up until 2011. Since Bosnian Serb forces were often viewed by Serbians as freedom fighters fighting for their independence, fleeing soldiers could easily find shelter in remote farms across Serbia. They did not have to fear being extradited by the government of  Slobodan Milošević who was also indicted and tried by the ICTY, though his trial ended without a verdict due to his death in prison in 2006.

With the capture of Mladić in 2011, and that of Goran Hadžić (the president of the short-lived Republic of Serbian Krajina during the first war in 1991) shortly thereafter, the ICTY has managed to round up all of the remaining Yugoslav war criminals on its list. The Tribunal, which was set up in 1993 to investigate the war crimes committed during the Yugoslav Wars between 1991 and 1999, has indicted 161 individuals and so far sentenced 83.

The failures of the Mladić case

Despite the ICTY’s unprecedented success in enforcing international criminal and humanitarian law, there remain shortcomings. In front of the court, Mladić faced two counts of genocide: one for Srebrenica and one for those committed in “other municipalities” in Bosnia. Mass-murder, torture, mutilation, rape, ethnic cleansing and the demolition of Catholic churches and mosques took place in several north-western and eastern Bosnian municipalities such as Foča, Kljuć, Kotor Varoš, Prijedor, Sanski Most and Vlasenica, all under the direct command of Ratko Mladić. However, he was acquitted for genocide in all of these instances, sentenced for crimes against humanity and war crimes instead. This raises the question: if Srebrenica was considered a genocide, why are these massacres not? According to survivors, it may be because the atrocities happened under the watch of the international community that was supposed to be there to protect civilians. Acknowledging that genocide took place would highlight the role and perhaps even complicity of segments of the international community in letting it happen.

Florence Hartman, a former senior officer of the ICTY who was incarcerated by the Tribunal for referencing material sealed by the court while covering Srebrenica, adds that another problem with the sentencing of Mladić is that it completely omits the role Serbia played in encouraging the events and later providing shelter for the criminals. She argues that the verdict has ignored the ideological, historical and international context of these war crimes, pointing out that genocide usually is the result of a process that rarely happens in a few days. What happened in Srebrenica and in other municipalities across Bosnia is the result of centuries-long tensions between the different ethnicities and religious groups of the region that suddenly broke to the surface after the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. There is no doubt that Mladić is responsible for these crimes, but taking them out of the broader context and not addressing the real reasons that enabled them to happen will not help Bosnia move on. Ethnic and sectarian divides are still ripe in the country, which the political system put in place by the international community in 1995 has not been able to bridge.

Bosnia today and perspectives for its future

The sentencing of Ratko Mladić also marks the 22nd anniversary of the Dayton Accords that created the country we today call Bosnia and Herzegovina, a move that not only solidified the divides, but made them even worse. Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of two territories almost equal in size: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (51% of the country) wedged between Republika Srpska (49% of the territory).

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Credit: CIA World Factbook / Creative Commons

While the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is predominantly populated by ethnic Bosniaks and Croatians, who are Muslims and Catholics respectively, the other half of the country, Republika Srpska, is populated by ethnic Serbs who are Orthodox Christians. The Dayton Accords thus created a “tiny Serbia” inside the Bosnian state: the product of the ethnic cleansing and genocide for which Mladić and others were convicted.

Within Bosnia, Republika Srpska surrounds the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (where the capital Sarajevo is located), but more importantly it neighbors Serbia on the east, with which it has much deeper ethnical and historical ties than with the other half of the country. Today, the lack of heterogeneous co-existence and the presence of strong nationalism are still part of life on both sides of the country’s eastern border. A good example of this is Serbia’s treatment of its war criminals. Just last month, the Serbian government announced that it is inviting Vladimir Lazarević – also convicted by the ICTY for crimes against humanity in the Kosovo war and released in 2015 – and other war criminals to teach at the country’s military academy.

The Yugoslav Wars erupted after the end of the Cold War precisely because the countries of the artificially created Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia wanted to establish their ethnically homogenous nation-states. A decade of wars followed which led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of millions. It created seven independent states (although Kosovo is not recognised by all) and an opportunity for stability and security. However, nearly three decades later, in the middle of the Balkans remains Bosnia and Herzegovina, an ethnically, religiously and politically divided country that is today a reminder of the atrocities committed throughout the wars of the ‘90s, and with those who committed them praised as national heroes.

Despite all of these divisions, Bosnia has managed to stay a united country, largely thanks to the help of the international community. Prosecution of former war criminals such as Ratko Mladić is one step towards addressing the grievances of Bosnian communities in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars. However, resolving these underlying issues (rampant nationalism, ethnic and religious tensions, historical grievances) ingrained in the society will be key to cementing the country’s stability and security in the long run, and eventually pave the road for Bosnia’s real integration into Europe.

Cover Picture: Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in 2017, © Jelle Visser / flickr