Argument

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In Bosnia, Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

The terrible truth is decades after the Bosnian War, the world has become too accustomed to war crimes.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
Former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic awaits the final verdict on the appeal against his genocide conviction over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre at a tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on June 8.
Former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic awaits the final verdict on the appeal against his genocide conviction over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre at a tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on June 8. JERRY LAMPEN/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader who was the main architect of the bloody 1990s Balkan wars, defied justice in a dramatic way. He died in a Hague tribunal prison cell in March 2006 before he was set to receive a verdict at his trial. For many Bosnians, his escape from punishment symbolizes exactly how justice has been served in Bosnia.

Last month, two former Serbian officials in the longest running international war crimes case in history were finally convicted of “aiding and abetting” war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia. Jovica Stanisic, the former head of Serbia’s state security apparatus, and Franko “Frenki” Simatovic, his deputy, were among the final cases heard by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), established by the United Nations in 1993 to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

By the time the ICTY officially finished its work in 2017, 161 people were indicted and 90 people were found guilty. (Stanisic and Simatovic were among the leftover cases started by the ICTY but concluded under a different U.N. mechanism.) But there are still a number of people facing war crimes charges in Bosnia and many more walking free with blood on their hands. This does not make reconciliation and healing easier. Nor does it send a clear message to current war criminals who are living free or serve as a deterrent for future perpetrators.

Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader who was the main architect of the bloody 1990s Balkan wars, defied justice in a dramatic way. He died in a Hague tribunal prison cell in March 2006 before he was set to receive a verdict at his trial. For many Bosnians, his escape from punishment symbolizes exactly how justice has been served in Bosnia.

Last month, two former Serbian officials in the longest running international war crimes case in history were finally convicted of “aiding and abetting” war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia. Jovica Stanisic, the former head of Serbia’s state security apparatus, and Franko “Frenki” Simatovic, his deputy, were among the final cases heard by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), established by the United Nations in 1993 to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

By the time the ICTY officially finished its work in 2017, 161 people were indicted and 90 people were found guilty. (Stanisic and Simatovic were among the leftover cases started by the ICTY but concluded under a different U.N. mechanism.) But there are still a number of people facing war crimes charges in Bosnia and many more walking free with blood on their hands. This does not make reconciliation and healing easier. Nor does it send a clear message to current war criminals who are living free or serve as a deterrent for future perpetrators.

Simatovic and Stanisic’s case is important because it links senior officials from the Milosevic regime to war crimes committed in Bosnia. Natasa Kandic, a brave Serbian human rights activist who has tracked war criminals for decades in her native country, said the case showed it was not only Serbian individuals but also institutions that were complicit—not just fighters on the ground but bureaucrats in Belgrade. “No one can now clear Serbia and say that it did not participate in these crimes,” Kandic said.

Still, Stanisic and Simatovic were given only 12 years, a light sentence considering their crimes. Their dirty work took place near the Sava River in April 1992, where many Bosnian Muslim and Croat men were rounded up, murdered, or sent to brutal concentration camps.

The gruesome legacies of these crimes should serve as powerful reminders of what can happen on our watch.

Meanwhile, former Gen. Ratko Mladic, known as “the butcher of Bosnia,” is held up as a national hero in Serbia and Montenegro. The former general—who led the onslaught at Srebrenica, Bosnia, where around 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered—is venerated by many Serbs as a symbol of national identity. Last month, The Hague upheld Mladic’s genocide conviction and life sentence, causing Serb politicians to step up their hate rhetoric that The Hague is anti-Serb.

The Simatovic-Stanisic trial began in 2009 and has taken until now to conclude. And it’s doubtful there will be similar tribunals like the ICTY for other ongoing conflicts. Tim Judah, a Balkans analyst, said the point is not how long justice takes but the fact that the appetite for international justice has waned.

“It was an unfolding thing, and it progressed in the 1990s,” Judah said. “But the enthusiasm and the optimism for international justice has fizzled out. In the 1990s, you could set up the ICTY because the Russians were weak. Now, they aren’t weak. You can’t set up a tribunal for Syria because the Russians would never allow it.” On this, as on so many other issues, the United Nations has been paralyzed by the ability of Security Council members like Russia and China to wield their vetoes to protect genocidal client regimes or to simply veto an international justice process they view as “interference in internal affairs.”

Last May, then-International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, speaking about war crimes in Libya, said the existence of unexecuted arrest warrants for alleged crimes against humanity or war crimes delays justice, undermines accountability, and ultimately prevents closure for victims. In the case of Libya, Bensouda urged tribunals to work alongside national judicial authorities as well as the U.N. Security Council to advance accountability. Her message was justice must work quickly to be effective.

Sunday marked the anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. But there are other crimes in Bosnia that are not commemorated. They include Ahmici, a town in central Bosnia where 116 men, women, and children were brutally killed in 1993 by Bosnian Croat forces, and the systematic rape camps set up to impregnate women by Bosnian Serb forces in eastern Bosnia.

Some of the Ahmici perpetrators—who shot the men and herded the women and children into basements before setting them on fire—were also given light sentences. As for the camps, many of the rapists and the commanders were never even indicted.

Jasmin Mujanovic, a Bosnian-born political scientist, believes since the ICTY and other tribunals were insufficient platforms for establishing full historical records of atrocities, “it remains for scholars and activists to clarify the true scope of the period and the crimes committed.” As with other efforts to memorialize atrocities, he said, accounting for the Bosnian tragedy will ultimately have to move beyond a purely legal framework.

The terrible truth is decades after the Bosnian War, the world has become too accustomed to war crimes. The international community was nonchalant in 2013 when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s “red line” and gassed his own people. The bombing of hospitals in Aleppo, Syria, by Russia and Yemen’s Saudi-led coalition; the siege and starvation in Ghouta, Syria, by Assad’s troops; the rape of Rohingya women by Myanmar military and security forces—all were basically shelved as tragedies, with no effort ever attempted to bring justice to the victims.

Judah is, in many ways, correct. The 1990s’ attempts to bring mass murderers to justice and find new ways to prevent genocide have faded. The “humanitarian intervention” debate set off by the Bosnian War and Rwandan genocide ultimately produced the principle of “responsibility to protect,” which was finally adopted by the United Nations under then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005. But that principle was flawed from the start and never fully implemented.

It might be hard to bring back the kind of passion for justice global decision-makers and opinion leaders had following the terrible genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. But the gruesome legacies of these crimes should serve as powerful reminders of what can happen on our watch—and why we have the responsibility to speak up, continue to try perpetrators, and to educate about genocides. It must never happen again.

Correction, July 20, 2021: A previous version of this article misstated the judicial status of ICTY cases in 2017 and the start date of the Simatovic-Stanisic trial.

Janine di Giovanni is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, the winner of multiple journalism awards, and the author of The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets, to be published in October. Twitter: @janinedigi

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