The four-volume judgement, stretching to more than 2,500 pages, has legally confirmed what everyone has known for more than two decades: Mladic was one of the most brutal war criminals in the closing years of the last century.
The wheels of justice in the case of Mladic and his henchmen might have eventually turned exceedingly efficiently, but also very slowly — too slowly to have the necessary impact, and to make the tribunal’s decision as meaningful as it could have been had it been reached in the immediate aftermath of the war in 1995. The fact that there are those who have not lived long enough to see Mladic’s conviction must leave a bitter taste.
He will most probably end his life in jail, and it is nothing less than he deserves for committing genocide, five crimes against humanity and four violations of the laws or customs of war. His complete lack of remorse, and the support he receives among Serbs in Bosnia and in Serbia, are not a good omen for the future of Bosnia.
It indicates that even if he and his partner in crime Radovan Karadzic are behind bars, their evil legacy has not been completely eradicated. For years after the war, Mladic was a welcome guest in Belgrade, seen in public enjoying the highlife. Even in the post-Milosevic era, both he and Karadzic enjoyed plenty of support among locals, who spent more than a decade shuttling them between hideouts.
There is still a very strong but erroneous belief among many Serbs, especially in Bosnia, that they were wronged and are the actual victims. Aside from the fact that this is extremely hurtful to their victims, it also carries the seeds of possible future bloodshed.
As important as the Dayton peace agreement has been in bringing to an end the war itself, those accords have not been followed up by a process of reconciliation, admission of guilt and responsibility-taking. Without it, there is greater likelihood of further conflict.
The reasoning for the verdict supplied by the judges in The Hague is painfully meticulous, bringing back to the surface memories of atrocities that had not previously been seen in Europe since the end of World War II.
It serves as a reminder that in the name of extreme nationalism and ethno-religion, Mladic and Karadzic ordered their army to commit genocide and ethnic cleansing, routinely and brutally raping women and girls as young as 12, shelling civilians, cold-bloodedly murdering thousands of men and boys in Srebrenica and elsewhere, and starving and executing detainees.
What makes those horrendous crimes even more heart-wrenching is that they did not happen in a remote place under cover of night for no one to know about them. They happened in front of the watching world public. The written and electronic media reported them in real time. They took place where UN peacekeepers failed miserably to protect civilians, not to mention handing over some of the victims to their killers.
The conviction of the Serbian warlord is a reminder of the genocide that had not been seen in Europe since World War II.
It was not only the collective vortex of nationalistic madness that left Yugoslavia in ruins and its leaders morally bankrupt. It was as much down to the international community, which let it drag on for three years until then-US President Bill Clinton ordered a military and diplomatic intervention.
Criminal neglect by the international community to stop genocide and other crimes against humanity has not been confined to former Yugoslavia. At the same time as the war in the Balkans, an even worse genocide that the international community similarly failed to avert took place in Rwanda, claiming the lives of 800,000 people and involving widespread rape as a weapon of war, and the destruction of entire communities.
And today, for the seventh year running, a war is raging in Syria in which immeasurable suffering has been inflicted on its citizens, mainly by the regime and its allies, though not only by them. Is anyone going to be brought to justice for the killing of half a million people, the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, and others crimes against humanity? If so, how long will it be before anyone is indicted?
In another part of the world, in Myanmar, more than 600,000 Rohingya have been ethnically cleansed, forced to flee their homes for Bangladesh in order to escape potential genocide, while the international community looks on and mildly rebukes it. Ironically, the previously lauded Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s de facto leader.
In a civilized world, the message to war criminals would be clear: They will be hounded to the ends of the earth until justice is seen and done. Otherwise there is neither justice for victims nor retribution for perpetrators. Now that the two “Butchers of Bosnia” are in jail, it is time for the international community to draw on this particular success and maintain the pursuit of those who have committed crimes against humanity, wherever they are.
But first and foremost, it is the international community’s duty to nip in the bud any signs of war crimes and crimes against humanity before these become as monstrous and out of control as we have too often witnessed in recent years and, sadly, continue to see today.
— Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg