Michael Dobbs

The case against Ratko Mladic

In a recent series of blog posts entitled "Mladic in Srebrenica," I examined the reported movements of the former Bosnian Serb military commander during the days immediately following the fall of the United Nations "safe area" in July 1995. Today, I will address the larger question of Mladic’s responsibility for the murders of around 8,000 ...

International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia

In a recent series of blog posts entitled "Mladic in Srebrenica," I examined the reported movements of the former Bosnian Serb military commander during the days immediately following the fall of the United Nations "safe area" in July 1995. Today, I will address the larger question of Mladic’s responsibility for the murders of around 8,000 Muslim men and boys dumped in mass graves, as shown on the map above.

Mladic’s defense lawyers have said they are planning to mount a two-tier defense. First, they will argue that the number of Bosnian Muslim victims has been wildly exaggerated. While they concede that there may have been some scattered "revenge killings" following the capture of the enclave, they claim that the overwhelming majority of the deaths were due to combat, or even Muslims fighting among themselves. Former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic has employed a similar defense in his own trial, which recently moved into the Srebrenica phase.

The second pillar of the Mladic defense will be the claim that he left the Srebrenica area by the time the mass executions began, and was not himself present at any of the execution sites. His attorneys will argue that he did not order the executions and cannot be held responsible for isolated acts of revenge by forces under his overall command.


Let us concede from the start that there is no "smoking gun" against Mladic, in the form of a written order or diary entry proving that he ordered the murders of 8,000 Muslims. Furthermore, claims by survivors of the massacres that Mladic personally supervised the executions have yet to be independently corroborated. As I indicated in a recent blog post, I have seen no evidence (other than disputed survivor testimony) showing that Mladic was in the SrebrenicaZvornik area on July 14, prior to meeting international envoys in Belgrade. If anybody knows of such evidence, please let me know, and I will be happy to update the post.

While Mladic’s whereabouts on July 14-at the time of the Orahovac executions-remain in doubt, he appears to have solid alibis for July 15-17, during which period thousands of Muslim prisoners were killed in the Zvornik area, north of Srebrenica. The fact that he was not on the spot does not of course mean that he was not giving orders from afar, through his established chain of command.

Even if we give Mladic the benefit of the doubt about his physical presence at the mass execution sites, there remains a mountain of evidence suggesting that he was the primary initiator and organizer of Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II. To summarize the most important points:

Mladic’s public statements. From the moment he first set foot in Srebrenica, on the afternoon of July 11, Mladic made clear that he was out for "revenge against the Turks," his derogatory term for Bosnian Muslims. He orchestrated an atmosphere of extreme intimidation around his meetings with Dutchbat commanders and Muslim representatives on July 11 and 12, telling the Muslims that they had a choice whether "to survive or disappear." He ordered an information blackout on July 13, closing roads to all non-authorized traffic and barring journalists from entering the area.

Supervision of the transportation operation. After initially asking the United Nations to provide transportation for Muslim refugees out of Srebrenica area, Mladic personally supervised the procurement of buses and fuel. He was present at Potocari when his troops separated men and boys of fighting age from the women and children, and refused to allow United Nations military observers to inspect the nearby "White House," where the men were being held. He visited some of the detention sites for Muslim refugees, including Sandici meadow (toward the bottom of the map), on July 12 and 13.

His presence in the Srebrenica area between July 11-13. While Mladic’s movements on July 14 are still unclear, there is plenty of eyewitness testimony and other evidence to show that he remained in the Srebrenica area for three days, from July 11 to 13, and spoke with large groups of prisoners who were later executed. During this period, there were well-documented cases of "opportunistic killings" of Muslim captives by Bosnian Serb forces, as well as a massacre of around 1,000 Muslim men in the Kravica warehouse.

His control over Bosnian Serb forces.  Videos taken of the capture of Srebrenica demonstrate Mladic’s penchant for micro-management. He concerned himself with the smallest details of military operations, and made it his business to know exactly what was going on. He was both feared and revered by his soldiers, who knew that they faced harsh punishment if they disobeyed his orders. The Srebrenica killings involved thousands of people in a vast logistic operation that included the requisition of fleets of buses, organization of execution squads, and the use of heavy earth-moving equipment for mass graves in a dozens different locations.

The actions of his immediate subordinates. Several Bosnian Serb officers, including General Radislav Krstic, commander of the Drina Corps, have testified that the executions were organized by a tightly-knit group of Mladic aides. A key role appears to have been played by Colonel Ljubisha Beara, a trusted Mladic associate, who was found guilty of genocide, extermination and murder in June 2010 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Judges found that Beara was the "driving force behind the murder enterprise" and was visited many of the detention and execution sites. Given their close ties and commander-subordinate relationship, it seems inconceivable that Beara could have mounted such a vast operation without receiving orders from Mladic.

The cover-up. Mladic’s own diary shows that he was personally confronted with demands by international envoys to explain what had happened to the missing Srebrenica men on the evening of July 14. Instead of halting the executions, he allowed them to continue. After the United States published reconnaissance photos of the grave sites in August, Mladic mobilized heavy earth-moving equipment and trucks to scatter the remains of the victims in secondary graves across eastern Bosnia.

That leaves the "there weren’t that many murders" defense.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, Srebrenica is probably the most meticulously documented war crime in history. DNA matches have been found for 5,600 of the 8,000 or so victims. In order to seriously challenge this estimate, it is necessary to cast doubt on the impartiality and expertise of hundreds of international crime scene investigators, forensic scientists, demographers, and contemporaneous witnesses, including Bosnian Serb officials. While it is possible that several hundred of the Muslims who fled Srebrenica following its capture by Mladic’s forces, were "killed in combat," the vast majority were murdered at specific execution sites far removed from the scene of the fighting.

Please click on the following links for a detailed explanation of Mladic’s actions and movements on July 11, July 12, July 13, and July 14.

Next week I will look at the role played by the international community in the fall of Srebrenica and the ability of western intelligence, particularly U.S. intelligence , to track the massacres in real time.

 Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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