It has taken sixteen years, but Bosnian Muslims finally have a chance to seek final justice with the capture of one of ‘the most wanted man’ in Europe.
Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander charged with responsibility for the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre was caught in a small town in northern Serbia on May 26.
Sixteen years after he was first listed as a wanted man for acts committed during the violent break-up of Yugoslavia, the Serbian national now faces The Hague on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
His arrest, so long after the crimes he commanded, underlines the powerful impact on international affairs of post Cold War norms of accountability – norms that presently also underpin international operations against Mummar Gaddafi in Libya.
"His arrest is a clear message to accused like Omar al-Bashir and potential accused like Moammar Gadhafi that justice never forgets," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program, in an email to the AP.
Last Friday the 69-year-old was declared fit to face trial and now faces extradition to Netherlands to face the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY)
Since the 2008 arrest of Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, Mladic has been the most prominent Bosnian war criminal on the run.
The Serb ultranationalist has been pivotal to the region’s politics for over two decades.
First he commanded the brutal three year siege of Sarajevo (the longest of a capital city in modern warfare) and the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica.
Then, after going on the run in Serbia, he became a litmus test of the country’s commitment to international codes of conduct. After the Kosovo crisis and the removal of Slobodan Milosovic Serbia’s rehabilitation into international society and its ascension to the European Union became de facto conditional on handing Mladic over to the ICTY.
"Today is an important day for the families of Mladic's many victims, for Serbia, for Bosnia, for the United States, and for international justice,” said US President Barack Obama, speaking from the G-8 summit in France. “Those who have committed crimes against humanity and genocide will not escape judgment," he said.
|Ratko Mladic pictured with his boss Radovan Karadzic, who is currently on trial before the ICTY|
"This is an historic day for international justice. This arrest marks an important step in our collective fight against impunity," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, during a visit to Paris.
"Mladic will finally be held accountable — to Bosnia and the world. ... Once again, we have seen that crimes against humanity will not escape the long arm of justice,” noted former US President Bill Clinton, in a statement. “His arrest also should allow the people of Serbia to take an important step toward integration into Europe and the international community," he added.
"This is a huge moment for the principle that people who engage in genocide will eventually be brought to justice, but also for Serbia,” said former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking on Channel 4 news. “It's an interesting example too of the way that Europe and the prospect of European Union membership can act as a magnet for changing the behaviour of countries, changing their political system. So it's big news and good news," he noted.
Both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague in their reactions to the arrest stressed the long reach and memory of war crimes tribunals.
"We should remember why the international community has been pursuing this man. He is accused of the most appalling crimes in both Srebrenica and Sarajevo," said Mr Cameron.
"The arrest of Ratko Mladic is a historic moment for a region that was torn apart by the appalling wars of the 1990s," noted Mr Hague.
"Almost sixteen years after his indictment for genocide and other war crimes, his arrest finally offers a chance for justice to be done," noted Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
“I congratulate Serbia on its efforts to capture Ratko Mladic and I hope this will pave the way for Serbian accession talks to begin no later than 2012," Finland's Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb told the AP.
Serbia has been under tremendous international pressure to capture Mladic as there had been credible reports that he was hiding somewhere in the Serbian countryside.
Further, the Serbian government was elected in early 2008 on a campaign of further integration with the European Union, and the EU had made it clear that the capture of wanted war criminals was a pre-requisite.
In December 2009, when Serbia formally attempted to join the EU, it officially made clear that the capture and handover of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, another Serb wanted by the ICTY, was one of the necessary steps to membership.
EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso visited Belgrade a week ago and told Serbian leaders that “time was running out”.
“Regarding cooperation with the ICTY, let me be very clear: There is no other way than for Serbia to step up its efforts in the search of the two remaining fugitives. Full cooperation is essential for EU membership, as our member states and the European Parliament have made very clear,” Barroso said.
Further, a leaker report by the chief prosecutor of the ICTY complained that Serbia was taking insufficient efforts to capture the two wanted men.
“Serbia's failure to arrest these two men undermines its credibility and the strength of its stated commitment to fully co-operate with the ICTY,” the draft says.
“It also threatens to tarnish the successful completion of the ICTY's mandate and presents an obstacle to fulfilling the international community's commitment to international justice,” it adds.
In October 2010, Serbia increased the reward for information leading to Mladic’s capture or arrest from EUR1million to EUR 10million.
"The government has money in the budget to cover the reward. There's always money for such allocations," said Infrastructure Minister Verica Kalanovic said at the time. "Serbia is determined to get rid of that burden.”
Speaking to reporters in Belgrade after Mladic’s capture, Serbian President Boris Tadic said it “removes a heavy burden from Serbia and closes a page of our unfortunate history.”
He added that the development “opened” all doors to membership in the European Union.
The EU’s enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, echoed that sentiment hours later when he said that "justice has been served, and a great obstacle on the Serbian road to the European Union has been removed."
However, he noted that that the arrest did not entirely remove the “list of reforms and list of benchmarks still to be fulfilled before the commission is able to make the respective recommendation.”
“The list is shorter by just one point,” he said.
"A very courageous decision by the Serbian president," said French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. "It's one more step towards Serbia's integration one day into the European Union."
“Clearly [Mladic] was the main person. His capture was most important to the EU and the Netherlands, who is blocking Serbia’s candidacy,” Natasha Wunsch, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations told France24.
Mladic is accused by the ICTY of being the person with command responsibility for the four-year siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
In 1991 Croatia and Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia, resulting in the mainly Serbian Yugoslav Army moving against both countries.
When Bosnia and Herzegovina followed suit by declaring independence in March 1992, the Serbs were determined not to lose more territory.
Between April 1992 and February 1996 undertook almost daily shelling and sniper attacks on the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.
A force of more than 18,000 circled the town and embarked on a campaign of shelling and shooting that claimed and estimated 10,000 civilian lives and injured another 56,000.
In April 1993, the United Nations had declared the besieged enclave of Srebrenica in the Drina Valley of north-eastern Bosnia a ‘safe area’ under UN protection.
|Mladic drinking champagne with the commander of the UN Peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica negotiating the surrender of arms by Bosnian Muslims which presaged the masscre of 8,000|
In July 1995 the area was protected by a UN force, consisting of between 400 and 600 lightly-armed Dutch peacekeepers.
When the units of the units of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), the Serbian Army, moved to capture the town, the Dutch failed to stop them.
On July 11, Mladic was the Bosnian Serb commander who entered Srebrenica, accompanied by Serb camera crews, and demanded that the Muslims hand over their weapons to guarantee their lives.
In the five days that followed between 25,000 and 30,000 women, elderly and children were forcibly moved from the area. Men and boys between the ages of 12 and 77 were detained for "interrogation for suspected war crimes".
An estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in Srebrenica in those five days.
“An important moment for the Mothers of Srebrenica,” a statement from 6,000 women who lost relatives in the massacre, issued through their lawyers in Amsterdam, said of Mladic’s arrest.
In 2004, the ICTY ruled unanimously that the massacre of the male inhabitants of Srebrenica was genocide.
The ruling judge stated: “By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They targeted for extinction the 40,000 Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica, a group which was emblematic of the Bosnian Muslims in general. They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity.”