Mladic guilty of genocide in Bosnian War

Victims' relatives react as they watch a live TV broadcast of the ICTY Mladic verdict in Potocari, near Srebrenica. 22 November 2017. ©  AFP-JIJI
International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia convicts "Butcher of Bosnia" to life imprisonment for Srebrenica genocide and other war crimes and crimes against humanity

Delivering a long-awaited verdict in The Hague, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia this week convicted notorious Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, sentencing the 'Butcher of Bosnia' to life imprisonment. 

In one of the United Nations-backed tribunal's final cases, a panel of judges found Mladic guilty of ten counts genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his forces during the war in Bosnia from 1992 and 1995 - including the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica in which over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered.

"Today's conviction of Ratko Mladic is a victory for the countless victims in Srebenica and across Bosnia who have waited so long for justice. The ICTY has led the way in pushing open the door for international criminal accountability and hastening the end of the era of impunity," said Kirsten Meerschaert, director of programs, Coalition or the ICC. "Global civil society is determined to build upon these achievements by ensuring that all victims of grave crimes have recourse to justice through the permanent International Criminal Court and the Rome Statute system."

Presiding judge Alphons Orie said Mladic’s crimes “rank among the most heinous known to humankind and include genocide and extermination”, and included mass rapes of Bosniak women and girls, cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners, terrorizing civilians in Sarajevo through shelling and sniping, forcible deportations and destruction homes and mosques.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has hailed the conviction, stating: "Mladic is the epitome of evil, and the prosecution of Mladic is the epitome of what international justice is all about... All those who question the importance of the ICC should reflect on this case. All those who are committing serious international crimes in so many situations today across the world should fear this result."

“He is definitely the personification of evil for many, many survivors and victims and that’s why this trial is so important – because it gives a certain sense of justice to people who have been have waiting for this moment for many years,” said Serge Brammertz, the ICTY chief prosecutor.

The ICTY Spokesperson on the judgement stated: "While we don’t comment individual judgements, we fully respect the decisions of the ICTY and support its work. We strongly reiterate the need for full cooperation with ICTY as well as its successor Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals."

Anna Neistat, senior director for research at Amnesty International emphasises that this verdict does serve as a reminder and a warning to current leaders that their apparent immunity might not be absolute: "No matter how strong and invulnerable they currently feel, and how confident they are in their ability to fend off accusation of grave crimes, their luck may change. Like Mladic, they, too, might have to answer for their crimes one day. This very notion can serve as a powerful deterrent. It will not stop wars and conflicts, but it might just make another attack on civilians, another execution, or bombing of a hospital a little bit less likely."

“More than two decades after his indictment, Ratko Mladic is finally facing the consequences of his gruesome crimes,” said Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The Mladic verdict should send a message to those in power around the world who are committing brutal atrocities, whether in Burma, North Korea, or Syria, that justice can find those who seem untouchable.”

The verdict meant that the bodies finally caught up with him," said Peggy O’Donnell, postdoctoral instructor at the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights at the University of Chicago. "It was the bodies of the people he had killed that gave life to his trial. Although digital techniques are changing the nature of war crimes investigations, Mladic’s conviction is a reminder that the bodies of victims have a unique power even in death."

Commenting on the outcome, Natasa Kandic, a leading Serbian human rights activist, said that with the atrocities in the Bosnian war, “we stopped being part of the civilized world. Now we can see who stopped our progress and why we became a society without solidarity or compassion."

"The Hague tribunal’s remit was in part judicial, but also to promote reconciliation in the Balkans," said Ed Vulliamy, author of The War Is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia. "Well, there is none. Mladić got largely what he wanted: a Bosnian Serb statelet from which almost every non-Serb was banished in 1995, to which only a bold few precariously return. He is adored, his portrait adorns bars and office walls in Bosnia and Serbia, his name sung at football matches."

“This outcome confirms today my deep belief that the battle against impunity is worth fighting,” said Adrijana Hanušić Bećirović, Senior Legal Adviser at TRIAL International’s BiH Program. “It sends a strong message that earlier or later, justice can be served even under the most complex circumstances.” 

Youth Initiative for Human Rights has used to opportunity to encourage Serbia to face its own past, stating: "It is time for Serbia to assume responsibility and to prosecute war crimes indictees more effectively in domestic courts, to introduce facts established before international courts into the education system, and to forever stop falsifying history and denying crimes."

“Today, as we honour the memory of victims of Srebrenica, of Bosnia and of countless other acts of violence around the world, we can state with more confidence that slowly but surely, justice will triumph over violence. It took 16 years for General Mladić to be arrested and transferred to the ICTY, but the lesson to draw here is that although it took time, there is no escaping justice, as his capture, transfer, trial and conviction shows. Let other fugitives from justice take note and let other victims take hope,” said Alison Smith, Legal Counsel of No Peace Without Justice.

"I think Mladic's arrest and trial went on for a very long time," said Munira Subasic, who managed to bury two bones of her son just a few years ago. "While this was going on, a lot of Mladics were born in Bosnia and Serbia. I'm not worried about Mladic himself anymore; he will end up where he belongs. But I'm worried about these other, newly born Mladics who are perhaps even worse than Mladic himself."

The Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks has stated: "In the last decade countries in the region made important steps to bring their legislation and practice in line with European and international standards. These countries’ co-operation with the ICTY and the regional co-operation on the prosecution of war crimes have contributed to improved accountability for such crimes. However, the current signs of regression in the region risk compromising the progress made so far. In order to reverse these negative trends, drawing from the lessons of the past, all political actors need to put their short-term political goals aside and focus on strengthening social cohesion instead of amplifying ethnic divisions."

"The verdict against Ratko Mladic provides a road map for the societies in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to look at the recent past from a perspective that leads to mutual trust and peace," said the Humanitarian Law Center. "This can lead to reconciliation in the region only if this last judgment and all the previous ICTY judgments are carefully read, accepted and officially supported by the legal framework, cultural policies and educational programmes of the countries of the region."

Alex Whiting from Just Security has labelled the conviction 'symbolic': "One can only hope that the scene at the ICTY courtroom in The Hague will give some measure of pause to today’s perpetrators, vain and full of themselves as they are, that they too might one day, even if years or decades from now, find themselves facing the complete condemnation of their legacy in an international courtroom."

The trial is one of the last to be heard by the ICTY, which is due to be dissolved at the end of the year. The live broadcast was followed closely in Bosnia. The Bosnian prime minister, Denis Zvizdicsaid the verdict “confirmed that war criminals cannot escape justice regardless of how long they hide.”

Timeline: Ratko Mladic's road to judgement