The best available, unsatisfying outcome

Ratko Mladic was convicted today in The Hague. The sentence is life imprisonment for genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws and customs of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. He will presumably appeal.

Re-reading the Mladic indictment is a terrifying reminder. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) originally accused him in 1995, but the trial that ended yesterday was based on an indictment in 2011 of participating in a joint criminal enterprise responsible for the removal of Bosnian Croats and Muslims, the years-long siege of Sarajevo, the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims after his military seizure of Srbrenica, and the taking of UN personnel as hostages. It has taken 22 years for this first conviction.

International justice today is agonizingly slow, meticulously detailed, procedurally complex, and ultimately decisive. I attended an afternoon of Mladic’s trial a few years ago. It was dull. The prosecutor would read volumes of detailed eye-witness testimony of atrocities to a Mladic underling who would deny that anything like that happened. Mladic sat silent. His defense lawyer would occasionally intervene, but to little avail. I could well imagine that this orderly process, involving years of hearings in which to air his denials, would not satisfy his victims.

In fact, the Tribunal is not looked on favorably in the region. Each ethnic group resents the indictments of its own military heroes. No group thinks its tormentors have been adequately punished. The procedural niceties are largely lost in a flood of self-justifying nationalistic fervor. There has been little reflection, at least in popular culture, on the villainy of one’s own, only of the others. Leading politicians exploit the popular sentiment. Few acknowledge their own group’s culpability or laud accountability.

I would nevertheless judge the Tribunal a success, less for its jurisprudence and more for its political impact. Even when it did not capture war criminals right away, indictments sooner or later forced wartime leaders out of the political arena. Had that not been the case, politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia would have been far more fraught. Mladic and his political counterpart Radovan Karadzic were forced into hiding. Slobodan Milosevic was defeated at the polls and extradited. Had they remained politically active, or even just present in their respective political environments, Sarajevo and Belgrade would have been far more fraught.

That is less true for the Croatian, Bosniak, and Kosovar indictees, not least because their top political leaderships were never indicted. Croatian President Tudjman and Bosnian President (Alija) Izetbegovic are dead. Kosovo Prime Minister Haradinaj was indicted but acquitted. He is again prime minister now. He, Kosovo President Thaci, or other KLA fighters could still be indicted, by a Kosovo “special court” staffed with internationals convened in The Hague to deal with post-war crimes.

Some will say the failure to hold more Croat, Bosniak and Kosovo political leaderships accountable, and the acquittal of some of their military leaders, proves that ICTY is biased against Serbs, or implemented only victor’s justice. I find some of the acquittals difficult to understand, but it is important to remember that a court like ICTY that follows best practices in contemporary criminal procedure is more likely to acquit the guilty than convict the innocent, which is as it should be.

There is however no question of innocence in Mladic’s case. The evidence presented at trial was overwhelming and compelling. Someone else unjustly getting off is no reason to doubt Mladic’s guilt. He will now have ample opportunity to appeal, but odds are he’ll spend the rest of his life incarcerated in a fairly comfortable place, telling himself he was right to protect Serbs by murdering and expelling Muslims and Croats, firing at civilians in Sarajevo, and taking UN peacekeepers hostage. It’s an unsatisfying outcome, but the best available.

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