Radovan Karadzic and the (Very) Long Arc of Justice

It has been more than two decades since the “Butcher of Bosnia” committed his crimes. Why was he convicted only now?

Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic sits in the courtroom for the reading of his verdict at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, on March 24, 2016.
The former Bosnian-Serbs leader is indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.  / AFP / POOL / Robin van Lonkhuijsen / Netherlands OUT        (Photo credit should read ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic sits in the courtroom for the reading of his verdict at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, on March 24, 2016. The former Bosnian-Serbs leader is indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. / AFP / POOL / Robin van Lonkhuijsen / Netherlands OUT (Photo credit should read ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

More than two decades after the deadly siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, a U.N. tribunal in The Hague has convicted former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The judges handed the 70-year-old Karadzic a 40-year sentence. Karadzic, the highest-level suspect convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), was found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica but was cleared of this charge in regard to attacks on a number of other municipalities in Bosnia.

If Thursday’s long awaited conviction is a victory for the ICTY — and for the tens of thousands of victims and families of the missing who fell prey to Karadzic’s forces — it also raises a troubling question: Why did justice take so long?

When tribunal judges issued warrants for Karadzic and his top military commander, Ratko Mladic, in late 1995, they characterized their crimes as “truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of history.” These hellish scenes included the Srebrenica massacre — the worst atrocity on European soil since 1945 — and the shelling of Sarajevo, which claimed more than 10,000 lives, many of them civilian. Among those killed in the siege were 1,500 children, including 7-year-old Nermin Divovic, shot in the head by a Bosnian Serb sniper while walking home with his mother to collect firewood on a cold November day in 1994.

But neither the judges’ haunting descriptions nor the legal obligation to apprehend those indicted for such crimes prompted NATO governments and their 60,000 heavily armed peacekeepers in Bosnia to arrest the two men. As William Nash, the American general in charge of the U.S. forces stationed in Bosnia, put it, in the April 2000 issue of the Atlantic, the “war-crimes thing” was “one of those problems we hoped would go away.” Washington feared that apprehending indicted war crimes suspects would provoke a backlash from Serb nationalists and threaten the fragile peace. And so NATO troops turned their backs as convoys bearing Karadzic and Mladic breezed through roadblocks.

Eventually, the two fugitives slipped across the Drina River into Serbia. Provided a government pension and protected by a bevy of bodyguards, Mladic lived openly in Belgrade, dining with his family in expensive restaurants and attending football matches. Karadzic, meanwhile, took on the identity of a New Age healer named Dragan Dabic. Dabic’s eccentric appearance — accentuated by a top hat, overcoat, oversized glasses, and flowing gray beard — transformed him into an intriguing newcomer in Belgrade’s cultural scene. Karadzic was so well-disguised that patrons of the bar he frequented — where his portrait as a nationalist politician hung on the wall — never recognized him as Europe’s most wanted man.

In the early and mid-2000s, Serbian authorities eventually facilitated the handover of scores of suspects to The Hague. By then, the European Union had made it clear that Belgrade’s cooperation on arrests was a condition of advancing toward membership in the EU. Finally, in late July 2008, 13 years after the Srebrenica massacre, Serbian security officers arrested Karadzic on a Belgrade bus and transferred him to The Hague.

Although Mladic remained free, Karadzic’s arrest accelerated Europe’s embrace of Serbia. Over the next two-and-a-half years, the EU rewarded Belgrade with political and economic concessions aimed at bolstering the Serbian moderates in power by keeping their bid for EU membership alive. As a result, the tribunal at The Hague lost leverage in its bid to gain custody of Mladic and the other remaining ethnic Serb suspects on the tribunal’s wanted list. Tribunal chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz repeatedly called on the EU and the U.N. Security Council to pressure Belgrade to arrest Mladic, but his appeals fell on deaf ears. Brammertz had to eventually turn to the Dutch government, which vowed to block Serbia’s progress toward EU membership as long as Mladic remained free.

With that writing on the wall, the politics of delay — which Serbian authorities, by this point, had turned into an art form — quickly approached its endgame. On May 26, 2011, Serbian police raided the small house in the northern Serbian town of Lazarevo where Mladic had lived with his cousin for several years. The arresting officers found Mladic sitting in his room, wearing a faded tracksuit, his face drawn and pale from a recent stroke. “Good work,” he said, handing over a pair of guns. “You’ve found the one you’re looking for.” Days later, Serbian authorities handed Mladic over to The Hague, where he is now on trial for the same crimes as his former boss.

State resistance to arresting those indicted for serious international crimes has also repeatedly stymied the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Established in 2002 to try those most responsible for atrocity crimes, the ICC faces many of the same impediments that have obstructed justice at the ICTY. With no police force of its own, the ICC must rely on states and international peacekeepers to carry out arrests. Some fugitives, such as former Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba, have been apprehended with relative ease. Bemba, convicted on March 21 by the ICC for atrocities committed in the Central African Republic, was arrested on a sealed indictment as he transited through Belgium in 2008.

Yet many state parties to the ICC brazenly ignore their legal obligation to make arrests or only cooperate when it suits their interests. President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, the highest-ranking suspect wanted by the ICC, provides a case in point. In 2005, as genocide raged across Darfur, the U.N. Security Council referred the situation to the ICC. Four years later, the court issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest but to no effect: The Sudanese leader went on to make 75 trips to 22 countries. Seven of those countries, including Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, and South Africa, whose obligations as ICC member states require them to arrest Bashir, failed to do so.

Meanwhile, the Security Council, despite requests from the ICC and the U.N. Sanctions Committee on Sudan, has failed to impose travel bans or freeze Bashir’s assets. Emboldened by such indifference, the Sudanese president traveled to South Africa in June 2015 to attend an African Union summit. Soon after his arrival, the country’s High Court, acting on a petition by a Johannesburg-based human rights group, ruled that the government was legally required to arrest the Sudanese leader.

But South African officials, unwilling to turn against a fellow African leader, ignored the court order and let Bashir slip out of the meeting and fly back to Khartoum, where thousands of supporters welcomed him with patriotic songs and a makeshift coffin with the phrase “laying the International Criminal Court to its final resting place” written on its side. Last week, the South African Supreme Court of Appeal called the government’s failure to arrest Bashir “disgraceful” — a move that might prompt other African courts over time to censure their own governments for obstructing the ICC’s work. Yet, in sharp contrast to the EU’s use of leverage to pressure Serbia to hand over Karadzic and Mladic, the African Union, in the name of African solidarity and sovereignty, has used its leverage to support Sudan’s decision not to cooperate in the Bashir case.

The lesson here is clear: If the ICC is ever to fulfill its mandate, the U.N. and ICC member states — and even nonmembers like the United States — must work collectively to end mass violence and bring those responsible for heinous crimes to justice.

The arrests and trials of Karadzic and Mladic — and that of many other suspects implicated in crimes in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo — demonstrate that in certain contexts the international community can generate the political will to deliver accountability for grave atrocities. But that commitment to global justice can wane when states come to believe that international tribunals jeopardize their national interests, foreign alliances, and diplomatic imperatives. That’s why the task of international justice must also consist of persuading states otherwise.

Karadzic’s conviction marks a historic moment to end impunity. Yet it also serves as a reminder of the international community’s reluctance to move swiftly to apprehend high-level officials wanted for genocide and other atrocities. Until states muster the political will to carry out arrests in a timely and consistent manner, murderers will continue to get away with murder, and torturers will retire with pensions.

Photo credit: ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Victor Peskin is an associate professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and a senior research fellow at the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

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