When Ratko Mladic — a leading Bosnian-Serb general during the Balkan wars of the 1990s — was arrested and extradicted this week to the international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, where he will stand trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, Richard J. Goldstone was quick to applaud.
"Mladic and Karazdic could and should have been picked up in the mid and second half of the 1990s, by the U.N. and later NATO forces," said Goldstone, who from 1994 to 1996 served as the first chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Goldstone’s remarks reflect broad frustration among supporters of war crimes prosecutions over what they see as the lack of political will by the United States, the United Nations, and other key powers to detain political and military leaders responsible for the worst crimes.
Even today, alleged war criminals in Uganda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo continue to go about their business with little risk of being nabbed by U.N. peacekeepers or other national or international forces. In Sudan, the United Nations has even played a role in transporting one indicted war criminal, Ahmed Haroun, to peace talks in the disputed region of Abyei.
In the months following the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the Bosnian war, the U.S. and Europe deployed more than 60,000 NATO troops in Bosnia to replace a beleaguered U.N. peacekeeping force and guarantee the cessation of hostilities.
But one thing the troops wouldn’t do is capture Mladic or his political ally Radovan Karadzic. (Karadzic was finally arrested by Serb forces in Belgrade on July 21, 2008, and extradited to The Hague, where he is currently on trial for war crimes and genocide.)
Goldstone recalled traveling to Washington and key European capitals in 1996 to try to persuade NATO leaders to capture two of the world’s most-wanted alleged war criminals. The response was cool.
"Our request was met with the answer that this is not our job, we’re not police officers, and we don’t want mission creep," Goldstone said. "That was the attitude of the United States and the Europeans hid behind the United States."
In a meeting with then Secretary of Defense William Perry, Goldstone said he had made his "strongest request" for U.S. support in capturing the two Bosnian Serb leaders. "The answer was they were not prepared to give the order for their troops to go and make arrests, to be proactive. I recall them saying if they fall into our hands we will take them."
The Western approach changed in 1997, after the Britain’s Labor Party came to power, and the new foreign secretary, Robin Cook, pressed British forces to play a more assertive role in capturing alleged war criminals, although it would be more than a decade before Karadzic and Mladic would be captured. Today, the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has indicted 161 Serb, Croats, and Muslims, and convicted more than 60. Only one individual, Goran Hadzic, a Croatian Serb, remains at large. Serbia’s pro-Western President Boris Tadic has vowed to capture him.
Britain pursued an even more assertive approach in Sierra Leone, where British Special Forces intervened to halt the country’s civil war, and arrested Foday Sankoh, the leader of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, a brutal rebel movement known for cutting off the hands and feet of its victims. Sankoh died in detention while awaiting trial before a U.N.-tribunal.
But, for the most part, the big powers are still reticent in pursuing high-profile suspected war criminals. U.N. peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in Sudan, have refused requests to detain alleged war criminals, including Joseph Kony, the leader of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, which is accused of killing thousands of civilians in Congo, Sudan, and Uganda, and Bosco Ntangda, a Congolese militia leader accused of committing atrocities while serving in the national army, in an arrangement allegedly backed by the U.N. peacekeeping mission.
"If the major powers wanted to provide the necessary assistance to local governments, or to act themselves, Kony could be gotten," said James A. Goldston, a former senior trial attorney for the International Criminal Court who now serves as executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative. "It’s not a question of resources or technical capacity; it’s really a question of political will." As for Ntangda, Goldston says he is "at large and well known. But nobody is going to arrest him."
But both Goldston and Goldstone say the lesson of the Mladic capture is that, with persistence, the world’s most powerful war criminals can be captured. Richard Goldstone recalled that the late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic — once considered as immune to political prosecution as Sudanese leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir is today — was arrested on corruption charges in 2001 by the government he once led, and subsequently went to The Hague to face charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
"People didn’t think that he would be surrendered by his own people, but governments change and their interests change," Goldstone said. The arrest of Mladic, said he continued, indicates that justice has "a long memory. It should be a message to other war criminals all over the world that eventually many of them are going to get caught."
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch