Radovan Karadžić, the former president of the Bosnian Serb Republic and supreme commander of its armed forces during the 1992–95 war, was convicted on March 24th of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the United Nations war crimes court in The Hague. The 70 year old received 40 years in prison — a de facto life sentence (although there will be an appeal).
The verdict, grandly dubbed the biggest moment in international justice since Nuremberg, quickly made headlines across the world. The tribunal has already ruled that Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995, when 8,000 Bosniak men and boys — “every able-bodied male” — were killed in the space of a few days, and their bodies bulldozed into pits. Karadžić had earlier admitted that the slaughter of detainees occurred but denied issuing orders or even having any awareness of it.
Wrong, says Thursday’s verdict: Karadžić “significantly contributed.” Given that this part of the verdict is unlikely to be modified on appeal, the ICTY has therefore made yet another important step in defining the character of the event. The massacre in Srebrenica is now described as the worst crime in post-World War II European history. It is also one of the greatest failures of United Nations peacekeeping ever, considering that 600 locally stationed peacekeepers utterly failed to prevent it. Furthermore, Karadžić’s Srebrenica verdict directly informs the ongoing trial of Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić, the court’s last high-profile defendant, which will shed an even brighter light on the chain of decision-making that led to the genocide.
Karadžić was found guilty as well on nine other counts — five counts of crimes against humanity and four violations of the “laws and customs of war.” To the dismay of thousands of his surviving victims, however, he was cleared of the second genocide charge relating to a series of 1992 atrocities in seven Bosnian municipalities, from Foča in the southeast to Prijedor in the northwest. Here, the court found Karadžić guilty of being part of a joint “ethnic cleansing” enterprise but rejected the prosecution’s case that he also had “genocidal intent to destroy a group.”
This is the most controversial part of the verdict: the notion that a single genocide occurred in Srebrenica and all the rest was “mere” mass murder, torture, terrorism, displacement of two million people from their homes, and so on. In the absurd world of Bosnian politics, this partial absolution can and will now be used to undermine the position of those who view the Serb Republic as an abomination and call for its abolishment — from some Bosniak politicians to, apparently, Angelina Jolie. The verdict is not merely rhetorical since local ethnocrats thrive on precisely such rhetorical jousts — the postwar, a.k.a. “Dayton” Bosnia-Herzegovina is in fact predicated upon them.
Like all those before it, the Karadžić verdict brings the mandate, the necessity, and the legacy of the ICTY into sharp focus. On the plus side, the tribunal has helped communities from being pegged as “collectively responsible” and has sent a message that international justice can be meted out relatively efficiently as well as impartially. Equally importantly, as chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz recently argued, the tribunal has also proven that even the highest-ranking state officials are no longer immune from prosecution. Syria’s Assad was probably paying extra attention to world news on March 24th.
On the minus side, there have been numerous questions about the tribunal’s transparency, operating procedures, and professional standards more generally. The fact that the ICTY moved to arrest Florence Hartmann, its former spokesperson and a subsequent harsh critic, just hours before the Karadžić verdict will almost certainly underscore new scrutiny of the ICTY.
One more thing: the tribunal has too often hyped itself as the conflict’s official historian and agent of “reconciliation.” This was a strategic mistake. By default, investigations, prosecutions, appeals, and other legal activities, even when well-designed and well-executed, address only the crimes of individuals or small groups of individuals — not “history,” not “peace.” Counterfactually speaking, even if these loftier ICTY aims had been bolstered by years of domestic trials, official apologies, truth commissions, media and education reform, and reparations across the Yugosphere, there would still be nothing to guarantee improved mutual understanding, much less trust, between and among its many ethnonational communities. Some societies manage to glue themselves together after a vicious war, but this typically requires multigenerational effort, transformational leadership, and a great deal of luck. The former Yugoslavia has had none of these yet.
An earlier version of this article was published 24 March 2016 on OpenCanada.org.