May 27, 2011

With all of the situations before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Africa, it is not surprising that claims that international justice is targeting Africans resonate widely with some diplomats and commentators, and  a segment of the general public. But Serbia's arrest and pending transfer to an international tribunal of one of the most notorious people wanted for genocide in Europe is a reminder that international justice extends far beyond the African continent.

Ratko Mladic-who was taken into custody in Serbia-is the former Bosnian Serb army commander. He is charged before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) with 11 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, including the massacre of up to 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in Srebenica during the 1990s war in Bosnia. Mladic's capture comes some three years after Serbia's arrest of Radovan Karadzic, another Bosnian Serb leader, who is now on trial for crimes connected to the Srebrenica massacre and other atrocities in Bosnia.

The past 15 years of prosecutions for heinous crimes in the former Yugoslavia do not negate the fact that international justice is applied unevenly. People from powerful states and their allies have been able to evade accountability, including for crimes in Gaza, Chechnya, and Burma. The United Nations Security Council's role in establishing international courts and the ability of the council's permanent members to veto initiatives plays a significant role.

No doubt far more robust efforts are needed to ensure that politics does not limit or block prosecutions. But the response should mean working to expand the reach of the ICC, not to undercut it where it can have an impact. Complaints by African leaders about the uneven application of international justice would carry a lot more weight if they focused more on ensuring prosecutions for atrocities wherever they are committed, such as by promoting wider ratification of the ICC's Rome Treaty, than impeding the court's functioning with calls for noncooperation.

Mladic's arrest, 16 years after he was first indicted, is also a stark rebuttal to those who question the value of seeking justice when timely surrender is unlikely.  That Mladic was finally taken into custody despite the long delay underscores how important it is to work to hold those responsible for horrific crimes to account even when the short-term arrest prospects seem limited.

Concerted political pressure can make a profound difference in whether an alleged war criminal is ultimately arrested. While Serbian authorities claimed to have no information about where Mladic was, the ICTY prosecutor and independent Serbian media insisted that he was in the country under the protection of elements of the army, hiding in plain sight. Mladic's arrest follows continued calls by European Union states for Serbia to cooperate fully with the Yugoslav international tribunal before EU membership would be seriously considered.

A similar phenomenon occurred with the former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who was sought for atrocities during the Sierra Leone armed conflict by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. For several years, it was known that Taylor was living in a villa in Nigeria-where he received refuge after he stepped down from power. Today, though, Taylor awaits judgment on his case from a jail cell in The Hague. Growing international pressure from civil society and governments led to his arrest in Nigeria in 2007.

Mladic's arrest puts ICC suspects on notice that while they walk free today, they may well come into custody in the not-too-distant future.  Even now, some accused-such as President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, who is charged with heinous crimes committed in Darfur-already operate in a far smaller universe since many countries have made clear that arrest warrants will be executed if suspects enter their territory. But ICC states parties and the UN Security Council will need to put a lot more diplomatic weight behind their verbal commitments to international justice to ensure that all suspects are turned over for trial.

Mladic's arrest is a landmark development and cause for celebration for victims in Bosnia, but it is also cause for celebration everywhere atrocities have been committed.  The prospect of justice for victims of horrific crimes is what counts, not which continent the suspects come from.

Elise Keppler is senior counsel with the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch.