The Mladic arrest: Justice finally arrives

Capturing the former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army is a positive step towards ending impunity for genocide.

Radko Mladic
  Mladic’s forces killed an estimated 8,000 men and boys during the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 [Reuters]

Today’s arrest of General Ratko Mladic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, marks the beginning of the end of a sixteen year-long effort to bring to justice the mastermind of the Srebrenica genocide. 

The fact that his arrest was announced by Serbian President Boris Tadic, sitting in a presidential office once occupied by Slobodan Milosevic, demonstrates just how far the world – and Serbia – has progressed since the “Death of Yugoslavia” in the 1990’s.

That’s because sixteen years ago this summer, while Slobodan Milosevic, Tadic’s predecessor in Belgrade, oversaw the “Death of Yugoslavia,” thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys were being slaughtered in Europe at the hands of the Bosnian Serb Army. Some were killed opportunistically, but most were killed in a full-scale military operation: hands tied and blindfolded, they were lined up before freshly dug mass graves and shot in the back.

In other cases, rather than bussing them to mass grave locations, their captors chose to murder them where they were detained – slaughtering them by the hundreds at a warehouse and theater, by volleys of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. Later, earth-moving equipment would be used to remove the dead – and perhaps some living – and deposit them into other mass graves.


It is estimated that over 8,000 men and boys were executed after the July 11, 1995, fall of Srebrenica, Bosnia, to the Bosnian Serbs. Like many of recent history’s slaughters, the international community was already present. A battalion of Dutch UN peacekeepers was responsible for protecting the first UN-declared “safe area” in Srebrenica. As the Bosnian Serb Army advanced on the city, UN officials declined to allow NATO warplanes to intervene until it was too late. The Serbs took Srebrenica without a fight and thousands of Bosnian Muslims fled to what they thought was the protection of the UN base in Potocari.

Rather than offering a safe haven, the United Nations expelled fearful Muslims from their base and watched as another European genocide unfolded. In a scene evocative of Schindler’s List– a case of life imitating art, imitating life– families were torn apart under the watchful eyes of the international community. Men and boys were separated from women and small children, never to be seen again.

I was one of the UN officials involved in the world’s belated response to that massacre. For almost three years, I worked as a prosecution attorney at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, where I helped investigate and prosecute the Srebrenica genocide. There, I met with survivors who had two hopes. The first was to be reunited with their loved ones – and the second – was to see criminal prosecutions of those responsible – including the prosecution of General Ratko Mladic.

Every year, members of the international community pause to remember the world’s most recent genocides. And today, with Mladic’s arrest, we are reminded of the biggest slaughter in Europe since World War II. Yet despite the memorials, memories and reminders, mass crimes are a reality in many parts of our world, including those on-going in Libya, Syria, Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo. And while dignitaries repeat their promises to “never forget,” much of the world stands-by and watches as mass crimes continue to be perpetrated.

It was never supposed to be like that. In the wake of World War II, after six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust, the world united to form the United Nations, an international institution that would serve to protect against the darkest sides of humanity. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the term “genocide,” worked within this new institution to expose this kind of mass murder as the most heinous crime of crimes. In 1948, his efforts were rewarded when the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Within a generation, however, after the self-congratulatory applause of international diplomats died down, much of the United Nations stood by and watched as the history of the Holocaust repeated itself–not just once, but twice–first in Rwanda and then, in Srebrenica.

New massacres

Sadly, the passage of time only seems to bring new slaughters in different corners of the word. The crimes in the Darfur region of Sudan have prompted world-wide outrage, and even an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir for genocide, but it has not prompted a halt to the suffering in Sudan.  And while the ICC has announced an investigation into mass crimes in Libya, it has not ended bloodshed lead by Tripoli, or the corrupt rule of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Indeed, justice is slow – and is often slower to stem on-going slaughters. But today we must pause to acknowledge that justice – while slow – does come.

The fact that the international community united to create a UN war crimes tribunal over a decade ago, set into motion a serious of actions that have helped bring about the arrest of one of the most powerful generals in modern European history.  In a pre-Nurenberg world, this would have been unthinkable. But in a world that’s now seen the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic, Charles Taylor, Saddam Hussein and others, the arrest of former strong men and mass murders are not just thinkable, but a reality. And with this reality comes a possible end to the impunity that has been, for far too long, associated with mass slaughters.

Like many historic actions, General Mladic’s arrest is due to the efforts of a handful people who have not rested until justice was done. This extends from the prosecutors and investigators in The Hague that have built the criminal case against him, to the witnesses that have already risked their lives to testify to the Srebrenica genocide, to the intelligence agencies and governments who have been tracking him, to the American and European officials that have kept the pressure on – and of course – to those wise individuals that chose link possible Serbian accession into the European Union to Mladic’s arrest. But the list does not stop there.

Just as it takes personal leadership to lead people to kill un-armed civilians – as Mladic did – it also take personal leadership and courage to lead people to capture the perpetrators of such crimes – and for people to testify to those crimes. And here lies the interesting twist.  Just as the network that protected Mladic for all these years were likely Serbs, it is also likely that a small collection of couragous leaders that chose to give him up, were also Serbs.

We may never know just who was involved, but as we look south of the European continent, to Libya and Sudan – we can only hope that it will be fellow Libyans and Sudaneese who will have the personal leadership and courage to give up their mass murders.  Justice may be slow, but it does come – and mass murders should take notice.

Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and senior fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, served on the Slobodan Milosevic and Srebrenica genocide prosecution trial teams at the UN war crimes tribunal, helped train the judges that tried Saddam Hussein, and worked with the President’s Special Envoy to Sudan while serving as a White House Fellow and special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. He is a partner at Ward & Ward PLLC, where he leads the firm’s international practice and serves on the Charles Taylor/Liberia asset recovery team.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.