Skip to main content

Many people in Bosnia and beyond thought they would never see Radovan Karadzic standing before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). It seemed almost beyond the dreams of the rape victims that I interviewed in Bosnia in 1993, or those held in concentration camps. But even then, in the midst of the conflict and in very difficult circumstances, local civilians had painstakingly gathered detailed testimonies from survivors in the hope that one day, there would be justice for these crimes.

Even after the Yugoslav tribunal was established and had issued indictments against Karadzic for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, it seemed unlikely that he would ever be arrested. And yet this week he faced a panel of judges for his role in the massacre of men and boys after the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, as well ascrimes in various cities across Bosnia, including the shelling of Sarajevo during the city’s siege.Why did it finally happen? A crucial factor wasthe European Union’s (EU) insistence that Serbia fully cooperate with the tribunal as a precondition for a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step towards EU membership. The EU correctly took a principled approach towards justice for the victims in the Balkans, insisting that Serbia surrender key fugitives, including Karadzic and his military henchman, General Ratko Mladic,before it could establish closer ties with the EU. This sent the message to Serbia, and to the rest of the world, that justice for the most serious crimes, including genocide, remains at the core of Europe’s values.

The timing of Karadzic’s arrest provides an important lesson for world leaders wondering about their approach to the International Criminal Court’s (ICC)possible arrest warrant against Sudan’s president. The court’s prosecutor wants the court to issue a warrant for Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for orchestrating the abusive counterinsurgency campaign in Darfur.

Many are arguing—as they did when Karadzic was indicted—that now is not the right time for justice. A warrant against Bashir, they say could stand in the way of peace.

The nay-sayers had nowhere to turn over the Karadzic indictment. But those concerned by the Bashir case have a place to focus their complaints. The United Nations Security Council has the authority to interfere with the ICC’s independent judicial processes. The Rome Statute creating the court contains a provision allowing the Security Council to suspend the ICC’s investigations or prosecutions for 12 months if it views suspension of the court’s work as necessary to maintain or restore peace and security.

Already the African Union and the Organization of Islamic Conference have urged the Security Council to use this measure. The question of deferral generated heated debate in Security Council negotiations this week over the renewal of the United Nations/African Union hybrid force in Darfur. One of the reasons offered for a deferral is fear of retaliation against peacekeepers and humanitarian workers.

Yet Karadzic’s arrest shows theimportance of consistent diplomatic pressure and how it can ultimately lead to justice for victims of serious crimes. The dire consequences predicted as a result of Karadzic’s indictment never materialized; in fact the indictment diminished his power and took him out of the political game.

In the case of Sudan, the Security Council already determined that the impunity for ongoing crimes in Darfur was itself a threat to peace and security when it referred the situation to the ICC. Nothing has happened to change that assessment: ttacks by government forces and aligned janjaweed continue. Moreover, the Darfur peace talks have been stalled for nine months for reasons unrelated to the ICC or to the possibility of a warrant against Bashir. No one has been held to account in Sudan’s national courts in relation to the attacks in Darfur. Thus, it is unclear what can be gained by deferring international judicial processes now.

On the other hand, the cost to justice to the ICC of such a deferral would be high. It will set a dangerous precedent for accused in other situations: that threatening violence and retaliation may enable them to blackmail the Security Council into issuing a deferral. While the risk to peacekeepers and humanitarians should not be taken lightly, the threat of retaliation should be met with a strong response by the Security Council. Rather than cave into demands, they should insist that perpetrators of such attacks, which constitute war crimes, be held to account. To do otherwise is to allow the Security Council to be held hostage to threats of violence.

Now is not the time for the international community to back away from commitments to bringing justice to victims of horrific crimes. European Union members, including Spain, must maintain their resolve to ensure that the Yugoslav tribunal’s remaining fugitives, including the notorious Serb general Ratko Mladic, are captured as a precondition to Serbia’s possible EU membership. European countries should similarly remain firm in their commitment to ending impunity in Darfur and to international justice by resisting a deferral of the ICC’s case against Bashir. Victims, both in Bosnia and Darfur, deserve nothing less.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.