Background Briefing

index  |  next>>


July 2005 marks the tenth anniversary of the killing of between 7,000 and 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. On July 11, 1995, the United Nations and NATO allowed Bosnian Serb forces to seize the town, despite it having been declared a United Nations “safe area.” Up to one thousand men and boys who stayed in the enclave were separated from the rest of the civilian population. Most men attempted to flee, in a huge column, through the woods towards the territory controlled by the Bosnian government. Bosnian Serb forces intercepted the column and attacked it. Large numbers of those in the column were either killed or taken prisoner. In the following ten days, Bosnian Serb forces executed thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys – both those captured in the woods and those separated from women and children – in areas north of Srebrenica.1  

The forces responsible for the crime were under the command of then-Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and then-Bosnian Serb army chief, General Ratko Mladic. In 1995, both men were indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for the Srebrenica massacre, the killing of civilians during the siege of Sarajevo, and numerous other crimes. In the words of the judge who confirmed the indictment for Srebrenica:

After Srebrenica fell to besieging Serbian forces in July 1995, a truly terrible massacre of the Muslim population appears to have taken place. The evidence tendered by the Prosecutor describes scenes of unimaginable savagery: thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers’ eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson. These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.2

Authorities in the Republika Srpska,3 international peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, and the authorities in Serbia and Montenegro, share responsibility for apprehending persons indicted by the ICTY.4 But after a decade of empty promises from western leaders that Karadzic and Mladic would be brought to justice, they remain at large.

The failure to bring Karadzic and Mladic to justice is a collective one. The unwillingness of the authorities in Republika Srpska to arrest the two men is sadly unsurprising.5  In the post-war period, Serb nationalism has dominated the politics of Bosnia’s Serb entity. In the decade since the end of the war, authorities there have failed to convict a single person for war crimes. Karadzic and Mladic are widely regarded as heroes, particularly in the entity’s eastern half.

Equally unsurprising was the lack of response from Serbia during the rule of Slobodan Milosevic—currently facing trial at the ICTY on multiple counts, including crimes against humanity in Bosnia. The Milosevic government was arguably even less cooperative on war crimes issues than the authorities in Republika Srpska have been.

The response of NATO and the post-Milosevic authorities in Serbia is harder to understand. NATO and successive democratic governments in Serbia have repeatedly failed to live up to their obligations to apprehend Karadzic and Mladic, offering excuses instead of arrests. NATO’s excuses have shifted—from arguments soon after its deployment that arresting war crime suspects was not its responsibility, or would destabilize Bosnia, to concerns over reprisals against NATO troops (so-called “force protection”). And like the government in Belgrade today, NATO has frequently hidden behind the excuse that it is ignorant of the men’s whereabouts and incapable—despite considerable intelligence assets—of finding that information out.

However, as this briefing paper demonstrates, there is clear evidence that NATO peacekeepers and Serbian police failed fully to pursue the arrest of Karadzic and Mladic, even when their whereabouts were known. In addition, it is simply implausible that the intelligence capabilities of NATO and the Serbian government are so poor that the two men could remain unnoticed for many years. For both these reasons, NATO and Serbia’s claim—that they would arrest Karadzic and Mladic if they were able to find them —is simply not credible.

ICTY prosecutors—who are well placed to judge the excuses offered for inaction—have been among the most vocal critics of NATO’s failure to arrest indicted war crime suspects, including Karadzic and Mladic. Richard Goldstone, the first prosecutor (1994-1996) questioned whether it was even meaningful for the ICTY to continue to exist in a situation in which NATO was unwilling to arrest war crimes suspects.6  His successor, Louise Arbour (1996-1999), complained in December 1997 that war crimes suspects in the region patrolled by the French felt “perfectly safe” because the French had never taken action against indicted war criminals.7 As Justice Arbour’s comments suggest, NATO’s overall track record of arresting indicted war crimes suspects is at best mixed. Although NATO forces have apprehended twenty-eight suspects,they have not made an arrest since April 2003.8

The current prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, has frequently condemned international forces in Bosnia for not doing enough to arrest Radovan Karadzic.9 On one occasion she demanded that the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) make a real effort to arrest Karadzic, instead of engaging in “public relations operations.”10 In her May 2005 assessment to the U.N. Security Council on the work of the ICTY, Del Ponte stated that “the failure to arrest and transfer Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic remains a disgrace both for the international community and for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro.”11

The ongoing failure of NATO forces to apprehend Radovan Karadzic, and its failure to arrest Ratko Mladic when he was in Bosnia, compounds the international community's dereliction of duty to protect the inhabitants of Srebrenica. The moral responsibility of NATO governments is particularly acute since Srebrenica was a “safe area” under the protection of NATO troops—albeit wearing United Nations blue helmets—and NATO governments allowed the safe area to fall.

The decade following the worst massacre in Europe since 1945 has been characterized by rhetoric about the need to bring Karadzic and Mladic to justice, coupled with a failure to take the steps necessary to achieve that objective. It is imperative that international forces in Bosnia, as well as the authorities in Republika Srpska and in Serbia, take the action necessary to apprehend the two wartime Bosnian Serb leaders. If they fail to do so, the true legacy of Srebrenica will be that those most responsible got away with mass murder.

[1] See, International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Prosecutor v. Radislav Krstic, Trial Chamber Judgment, August 2, 2001; Prosecutor v. Radislav Krstic, Appeals Chamber Judgment, April 19, 2004.

[2] Judge Fouad Riad of the International Criminal Tribunal of former Yugoslavia, November 16, 1995, cited in United Nations, “Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to General Resolution 53/35: The Fall of Srebrenica,” A/54/549, November 15, 1999.

[3] Republika Srpska is one of the two “entities” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The majority of people in Republika Srpska are Bosnian Serbs. The other entity is Federation Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is inhabited mainly by Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats.

[4] The Statute of the ICTY obliges all states to comply “without undue delay” in the “arrest or detention of persons” indicted for war crimes and “the surrender or transfer of the accused to the International Tribunal.” As parties to the Dayton Peace Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro, are under an additional obligation to cooperate with the ICTY.

[5] Bosnian Serb police forces have twice made half-hearted efforts to locate Radovan Karadzic. On September 3, 2003, Republika Srpska (RS) police raided the Bijeljina home of a Serbian Orthodox Bishop after receiving information from European Union Police Mission (EUPM) that Karadzic was hiding in the premises. [Council of Europe,] Bosnia and Herzegovina: Compliance with obligations and commitments and implementation of the post-accession co-operation programme, Fifth Report (July 2003 - September 2003), SG/Inf(2003)36, October 1, 2003. On March 12, 2004, the RS police received information that Karadzic was in the area of Bratunac, in eastern RS, and might have tried to cross into Serbia. One hundred and fifty police officers reportedly carried out checks on cars and individuals at several places near the border between Bosnia and Serbia. “Bosnia Serb police search for Karadzic,” Reuters, March 13, 2004.

[6] Ray Moseley, “NATO May Extend Troops’ Bosnia Duty U.S. Unenthusiastic About New Mission,” Chicago Tribune, September 26, 1996.

[7] Craig R. Whitney, “Prosecutor Says French Balk at Seizing War Criminals in Bosnia,” The New York Times, December 16, 1997.

[8] See Hugh Griffiths, “SFOR Indictee Arrest Record Mixed,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting web site, December 3, 2004 [online], (retrieved June 22, 2005).

[9] See, for example, “U.N. prosecutor tells peacekeepers to get Karadzic,” Reuters, February 25, 2001.

[10] “Peacekeepers making no real effort to get war crimes suspect Karadzic: prosecutor,” Agence France-Presse, August 23, 2002.

[11] Assessment of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, pursuant to paragraph 6 of Security Council resolution 1543 (2004), May 23, 2005.

index  |  next>>June 2005