Seven Questions: Richard Holbrooke on Radovan Karadzic

Amb. Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. assistant secretary of State and the chief negotiator of the Dayton Peace Agreement, shares his reflections on captured war criminal Radovan Karadzic, international justice, and how to deal with Osama bin Laden.

-/AFP/Getty Images

-/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign Policy: Radovan Karadzic was captured this week in Belgrade. As someone who dealt closely with the Balkans under the Clinton administration, and sat across from Karadzic in negotiations, can you talk a little bit about how his capture personally affected you?

Richard Holbrooke: I got the news on a train from New York to Washington. Ive rarely been so excited about any news event in a positive sense. The world gets so much bad news, and to bring this man to justice, this terrible man, ranks right up there with capturing Saddam Hussein. It would be spectacular if he were joined by [former general and indicted war criminal Ratko] Mladic and [al Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden, who are some of the worst people in the world. Ive had to deal with [Zimbabwes President Robert] Mugabe, [former Philippine President Ferdinand] Marcos, and [late Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic, but I felt that Karadzic was the worst of them all, so I felt very, very good about this. But Mladic is still at large; let us never forget that.

FP: Do you think the Serbian government knew all along where Karadzic was?

RH: I think there were elements within the Serbian security services that always were protecting him and General Mladic.

FP: How did the dynamic change?

RH: The dynamic changed because [Serbias President] Boris Tadic, a pro-Western democrat, was reelected in a critically important vote and on a pro-European platform. He was able to finally replace some of the leaders in Serbias security system, where there were people who had been protecting Karadzic and Mladic.

Let me just say that Karadzic should have been captured in the first few months after [the signing of the] Dayton [Peace Accords], in early 1996. Even though everybody knew where he was, he was not brought to justice because the NATO commander, Adm. Leighton Smith, failed to exercise his authority. Smith said it was not a mission of his command, which was a terrible thing to do. Had Karadzic been arrested back then, the history of the Balkans would have been much easier during the last 13 years, because Karadzic wouldnt have been able to actively try and undermine political stability and reconciliation in the Balkans.

FP: How will this move play out for Boris Tadic? Is this going to make him unpopular domestically?

RH: Yes and no. There are a lot of Serbs who have this mythic view of their own past and who are into self-victimization, which means that some of them will be angry with what they feel is a betrayal of a Serb to the international community. However, the Serbs have to choose between the past and the future, and their future clearly lies within the European Union. But to get there, they have to put the past into history books and not make it a living thing. This applies not just to the war in Bosnia, but more urgently, to the situation in Kosovo, because EU membership will be very difficult to achieve if they have territorial claims on a neighbor with a constant possibility of a war.

FP: So, capturing Karadzic is by no means the final hurdle to EU membership?

RH: No, not at all.

FP: In your editorial in the Washington Post, you draw a comparison between Karadzics indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashirs recent indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC). But if EU membership is such a powerful reason for Serbia to cooperate with the ICTY, wheres the parallel incentive for Sudan to play ball with the ICC?

RH: I agree that there is a structural difference with the two arrests now. But back in 1995, when Karadzic and others were indicted, the situation was fairly similar, and there were people who lamented the fact that we would no longer be able to negotiate because theyd been indicted. But none of that happened. In fact, we used the indictments to prevent Karadzic and Mladic from coming to Dayton. When Milosevic said that he wanted to invite them to Dayton, we said, Hey, be our guest! Well arrest them as soon as they land.

Now, there are a greater number of people, as reflected in todays article in the Wall Street Journal, who feel that Bashirs indictment will hurt the negotiations in Sudan.

But my view is that, number one, Bashir hasnt been very cooperative up until now. Number two, the lesson of Karadzic is that it may take a long time. Also, when all is said and done, its important to remember that Karadzic was under constant pressure for the 13 years following his indictment. He couldnt continue his political movement, which was a genocidal movement, and in the end he was brought to justice. I hope thats what Bashir is thinking about tonight in Khartoum. Maybe hes sitting around with his colleagues, laughing and saying, Theyll never catch me, but deep down inside he must be wondering. There is value in having international procedures that legitimize going after these people, because they mean we no longer have to have vigilante justice. Mladic and bin Laden are the last big ones.

FP: Would you advocate seeking an indictment by the international court for bin Laden?

RH: Yes.

FP: So, if bin Laden were captured, he would go to The Hague rather than to, say, Guantnamo?

RH: There is one problem with The Hague with regard to bin Laden, and that is that The Hague will not give out a death penalty. But I would still be in favor of indicting him through the ICC, because I think it would allow us to put even more pressure on Pakistan to participate in the process.

FP: Dont you think that would create a political problem for whoever posed that idea? How do you think it would play out if Barack Obama said, We want to seek an ICC indictment for Osama bin Laden?

RH: It would just put additional pressure on the Pakistanis to help find him. But I stress, if anyone deserves the death penalty, it is Osama bin Laden. If he were captured, I would not want to see him escape that.

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. assistant secretary of State and ambassador to Germany, was the chief architect of the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia.

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