Protracted Mladic trial a microcosm of challenges securing justice for war crimes

Louis CooperLouis Cooper | Updated: 05-06-2021 18:27 IST | Created: 05-06-2021 18:27 IST
Protracted Mladic trial a microcosm of challenges securing justice for war crimes
Representative Image Image Credit: ANI

The surviving Bosnian women whose husbands, brothers, and sons were killed in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre are anticipating June 8th with bated breath and anxious hearts. On that date, the man chiefly responsible for the bloodshed – military leader Ratko Mladic – will face final justice for his war crimes, hopefully allowing those affected by his atrocities to find some measure of peace after a lifetime of grief.

Justice has been a long time coming for Mladic, given that he was first indicted some 26 years ago. The seemingly interminable nature of his case is sadly not unusual, since holding the perpetrators of war crimes accountable for their deeds has proven to be remarkably difficult all around the globe. Countries are often unwilling to acknowledge atrocities committed by their citizens, meaning the events themselves are swept under the carpet, and perpetrators are allowed to walk free. Hopefully, a long-overdue resolution in the Mladic case can offer some solace to the Mothers of Srebrenica and serve as a blueprint for future proceedings.

Old wounds still fester

Mladic is one of the most notorious figures associated with the Bosnian war. According to the testimonies of almost 600 individuals – which were amply supported by audio and video evidence – he ordered the execution of more than 8,000 civilians in Srebrenica and the displacement of over 30,000 more during the biggest European massacre since World War Two. He also personally oversaw a siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, resulting in some 12,000 more fatalities.

Mladic’s crimes were well known even at the time of their perpetration. Not only did he allegedly acknowledge that he was carrying out genocide to his second-in-command, but he was also indicted before the war was even over in 1995. Nonetheless, he was not apprehended by the UN for well over a decade, despite the Hague warrant against him and multiple opportunities for his arrest. It was not until the EU piled pressure on candidate country Serbia to give Mladic up that the warlord was detained. In 2017, he was sentenced to life imprisonment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Next week’s hearing will review Mladic’s appeal against that verdict.

Lai Dai Han in limbo

The event might represent some light at the end of the tunnel for those touched by Mladic’s barbarism, but many other war crime victims are still waiting to experience the same kind of cathartic closure. Sadly, even some of the world’s leading democracies are unwilling to address the cruelties committed by their citizens. South Korea, for example, has yet to officially acknowledge that its troops sexually assaulted countless Vietnamese women during the Vietnam War.

Some 800 victims of this abuse are still alive in Vietnam today, while the children born from those attacks – known by the pejorative term Lai Dai Han, or “mixed blood” – are believed to number more than 5,000. Tragically, the Lai Dai Han and their mothers have suffered a lifetime of stigma and ostracization and are still clamoring to have their voices heard. For its part, South Korea has failed to address or investigate the chilling reports of abuse and has yet to offer any apology or support to the victims. Vietnam, meanwhile, is so wary of upsetting the applecart and alienating one of its biggest investors that it has not asked Seoul for an apology for its troops’ egregious behavior. 

UK reluctant to seek accountability at home

South Korea isn’t the only so-called “free” nation to refuse to face up to difficult truths. The UK recently arrested a man in Leeds on suspicion of having committed war crimes in Sierra Leone more than two decades ago—yet has turned a blind eye to reports of atrocities carried out by its own forces. A BBC Panorama investigation alleged that the British government had repeatedly covered up war crimes committed by British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the extrajudicial killing of unarmed civilians. In fact, the UK government reportedly concocted excuses to shutter the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), set up to investigate reports of war crimes in Iraq, and its Afghanistan-centred equivalent, Operation Northmoor, before the investigations led to a single prosecution. According to one former IHAT detective, “the Ministry of Defence had no intention of prosecuting any soldier of whatever rank he was unless it was absolutely necessary, and they couldn’t wriggle their way out of it”. 

To make matters worse, after an extensive review the International Criminal Court confirmed many of the findings of the BBC Panorama investigation. While the ICC could not categorically state that the UK had attempted to shield its soldiers from prosecution, the court found evidence that hundreds of Iraqis, many of them civilians, were abused by UK troops and that British investigations fell well short of the mark. With IHAT and Operation Northmoor closed, there’s little hope for swift justice.

If justice is blind, governments are not

Thankfully, Mladic will not join the ranks of those who have gone to their graves without facing the reckoning that their conduct merits. Ex-president of Serbia Slobodan Milošević is one such criminal who died before being sentenced, but as the last case to be processed by the ICTY, Mladic’s trial offers the region some chance at rehabilitation and healing. The avid attention which his victims have paid to the outcome of the trial over its lengthy duration – as well as the pro-Mladic tributes which continue to pop up in the towns which played host to his inhumanity – underscore the value that such overdue resolution can offer, for both sides of the conflict.

As such, it is to be hoped that Mladic’s conviction will mark the beginning of a new era in global jurisdiction and law enforcement, in which no effort is spared to bring the guilty to account. Shying away from a painful past might be a preferable option for those unwilling to recognize their complicity in the callous actions of years gone by, but a scar must be properly dressed (and addressed) if it is to have the opportunity to heal. Major democracies around the world would do well to remember that fact when the hammer finally falls on Mladic and Srebrenica.

(Devdiscourse's journalists were not involved in the production of this article. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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