General Ratko Mladić has been sentenced to life in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The court found the former Bosnian Serb military chief guilty of one count of genocide and ten crimes against humanity, plus violation of the laws and customs of war.
To me, this is entirely personal.
I was a high school student in Sarajevo when the general assumed command of the Serb forces on the hills surrounding the city. Hours after the verdict, CBC played an intercepted recording of Mladić’s order from 28 May 1992, the part in which he demands immediate shelling of two city neighbourhoods in which “there aren’t many Serbs.”
I broke down upon hearing this on the car radio, as I was driving on Holland Avenue. The recording sometimes does this to me, especially the last part: “Let’s blow their minds, so they cannot sleep at all.”
The terror suffered by Sarajevans during the three years of the siege was part of a policy to create a Serb polity in Bosnia by any means necessary: think mass expulsions, enslavement, torture, rape, murder, and of course genocide. The verdict confirms all of this, establishing as well that Mladić helped orchestrate the deaths of 8,000 Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica over five days in July 1995. Disappointingly, if predictably, he was acquitted of the second genocide charge pertaining to atrocities that occurred in 1992 in six other Bosnian municipalities.
The ruling would have been gratifying were it not for the fact that Mladić and his ilk have apparently won.
A peace deal that stopped the war partitioned Bosnia into two entities, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and a Bosniak-Croat federation. Worse, division is precisely what most local leaders want.
“No matter what, Mladić remains a legend among the Serb people,” declared Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik a day before the verdict. In a country where the official rate of unemployment is 44 percent, the production of “mutual hatred” is a basic technology of rule.
The verdict arrived as the tribunal gets ready to close down on 31 December, when all residual work, including outstanding appeals, will move to a separate institution. Many will rightly see the tribunal as spectacularly successful. It indicted 161 people from all sides of the Yugoslav wars and sent 83 of them to jail, both big fish and small fry.
This success has much to do with Yugoslavia’s European geography. Eventually, NATO did intervene in the conflict, and this put an end to Europe’s worst atrocities since the Second World War. The European Union’s conditionality principle also helped: no post-Yugoslav state could bid for EU membership without showing some co-operation with the tribunal.
The tribunal’s legal work now directly informs the International Criminal Court and current and future efforts to prosecute people responsible for war crimes. Political and military leaders issuing orders in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, or Myanmar are unlikely to be extradited to the Netherlands any time soon, but some of their advisers will pore over the full text of the Mladić verdict once it’s released.
It is equally true that the tribunal has underperformed, sometimes woefully so.
Questions about its transparency, operating procedures, and professional standards more generally remain valid, as does the fact that its prosecutors failed to address some of the worst crimes, as well as several key chains of command. After all, no official from Serbia proper has been successfully prosecuted for their role in the Bosnian atrocities, a fact that will further hobble the reckoning in that country with the vicious and, in many ways, ongoing political project that began with Slobodan Milošević.
In an alternate universe, the tribunal might have actually helped with the reconciliation process.
If the people of the Yugoslav region had been enthusiastically supportive of official apologies, of domestic trials, of truth commissions, of media and education reform and of reparative justice, then the goal of improving mutual recognition and trust might have been possible.
But this is a story any number of my fellow Canadians could tell just as well.
This article was first published by the Ottawa Citizen under the title “Mladić’s conviction alone won’t heal wounds of war.”