Ratko Mladic Trial Should Deliver Real Justice for Srebrenica Victims

Now that the Serbian war crimes fugitive is in custody, The Hague should skip charges that could create a Milosevic-style circus and focus on Mladic’s crime against humanity—the slaughter of 7,500 at Srebrenica, says Geoffrey Robertson.

The capture of Ratko Mladic is a signal moment in the delivery of the Nuremberg legacy that political and military leaders must eventually pay for their crimes against humanity. He could—and should—have been taken into custody between 1996 and his disappearance in 2002, but diplomats then did not trust international justice: “The capture of Karadzic and Mladic” said a NATO spokesman, “is not worth the blood of one NATO soldier.”

Today, with Radovan Karadzic on trial, Croatia’s fugitive Gen. Ante Gotovina convicted, the verdict on Charles Taylor imminent, and Col. Muammar Gaddafi under indictment, there is more confidence that Nemesis will strike those who mass murder their own—and other—people.

However, while the Mladic trial will be an opportunity to see justice done, it must be seen to be done rather better than it was in the case Slobodan Milosevic, who died before he could present any defense to a prosecution case that had lasted an intolerable three years. The expense and delay in The Hague contrasts starkly with justice at Nuremburg, where a convincing verdict on 23 Nazi leaders was rendered within 12 months. There are greater obligations now to disclose evidence and afford time, facilities, and appeal rights for defendants, but there is a problem with prosecutors and judges who think they have a duty to write history rather than to adjudicate specific allegations. They seriously overload their indictments—Milosevic, for example, was charged with responsibility for three separate wars spanning 10 years, when he could have been convicted simply and expeditiously for the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.

If Mladic is capable of understanding the charges—and he has understood them well enough to stay in hiding—he should be tried for the crime against humanity at Srebrenica, and tried quickly.

The Mladic indictment, broadly drafted by Richard Goldstone in 1995 and updated in 2009, charges genocide (difficult to prove and open to endless technical legal arguments) and numerous war crimes throughout the conflict in the Balkans. It should be replaced by just one charge, the crime against humanity constituted by his command responsibility for ordering the slaughter of more than 7,500 prisoners of war at Srebrenica—the worst war crime since the Japanese death marches of POWs at the end of World War II. There is ample evidence of his guilt, much of it provided by Serb television, which pictured him standing on a hill above the town and saying: “Remember that tomorrow is the anniversary of our uprising against the Turks. The time has now come to take revenge on the Muslims.” The ensuing bloodbath, as he well knew, was a heinous breach of the Geneva Convention that protects prisoners of war.

Limiting the trial in this way will enable some justice to be done before the inevitable claims of illness, old age, and unfitness to stand trial. These are already being voiced by his lawyers in Belgrade, but the European Union must insist that they be decided only in The Hague, after independent and carefully scrutinized medical examination. We have had too many international criminals escape justice for bogus medical reasons. Remember Pinochet waving his stick happily after he landed in Chile, courtesy of Jack Straw’s mistaken assessment that he was unfit to stand trial? Remember the convenient escape several years ago of Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, when a credulous Scottish justice minister was led to believe by doctors that the Libyan would die within three months? If Mladic is capable of understanding the charges—and he has understood them well enough to stay in hiding—he should be tried for the crime against humanity at Srebrenica, and tried quickly.

Focus on this war crime will discomfort those who might have prevented it, especially the United Nations, which refused to authorize the air strikes that would have stopped Mladic’s advance. The Dutch government also bears blame for vetoing the strikes to protect its cowardly battalion, which was meant to be protecting the town but which immediately surrendered to Mladic and handed over to him the thousands of Muslims who had sought refuge in the U.N. compound. The moral nadir of U.N./NATO “peacekeeping” where there is no peace to keep is the photograph of Mladic blowing his cigar smoke in the face of the spineless Dutch colonel whilst in the background those his battalion should have protected were taken off to the killing fields.

Yet nothing should detract from Mladic’s command responsibility, and he must not be indulged by a court that bent over backward to help Milosevic. This came at a time when international justice was under attack, especially from the Bush regime, which in a fit of puerility approved the “Bomb The Hague” Bill, allowing the U.S. president to use force to free any American under indictment there. If Mladic insists on defending himself and then seeks to disrupt proceedings, he should have a capable team of lawyers imposed on him, whether he likes it or not. He could then speak from the witness box or not at all.

As for Serbia, it has some more atoning to do before EU membership can be assured. Karl Jaspers pointed out that the German people did not bear collective criminal guilt for Hitler, but they did bear collective political responsibility. So it remains the Serbian government’s duty not only to send Mladic quickly to The Hague but to investigate and prosecute those who have harbored him. It has a particular duty, wrongly dodged by Hague prosecutors, to clean out the Serb Orthodox Church, whose priests blessed the death squads at Srebrenica. Without their blessing, I believe that some soldiers would have disobeyed their orders to shoot defenseless, hogtied men and boys. It is widely known that the church has harbored Hague fugitives in its monasteries and has been deeply complicit with the murderous aspects of Serb nationalism.

Some of Mladic’s victims are upset that he has been free for 16 years, but his life on the run has been increasingly miserable. They should be grateful that the Serb police captured him alive instead of executing him summarily, as the United States did with Osama bin Laden. Mladic now will appear as a reduced and demystified figure in The Hague dock—an inhumane serial killer rather than a hero. His victims should remember and take heart from the fact that the wheels of international justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small.

Geoffrey Robertson QC is a member of the U.N.'s Internal Justice Council and author of Crimes Against Humanity (The New Press).