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No Safe Haven?

The long saga that led to Ratko Mladic's arrest shows that international pressure does work. It just takes time.

Published in: Foreign Policy

The arrest of the notorious fugitive Ratko Mladic almost 16 years after his indictment for genocide closes a gaping hole in the otherwise laudable efforts to bring to justice the authors of "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans. Of the alleged architects of that slaughter, former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic may have been the better known (he managed to drag out proceedings in The Hague until he died, depriving the world of the satisfaction of a judgment); former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic may have been the more flamboyant (his long period in hiding ended in 2008, and he is now on trial in The Hague), but Mladic, the wartime Bosnian Serb military leader, was arguably the most ruthless.

Mladic was not an antiseptic killer giving orders from afar. At Srebrenica, the site of the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II, he handed out candy to placate terrified children as he rounded up 8,000 of their fathers and brothers to be machine-gunned to death in the surrounding hills.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has done an impressive job of bringing the architects of Balkan war atrocities to justice. Slowly it has worked its way through the political and military commanders who directed the slaughter, convicting and sentencing 64. But its work would have been glaringly incomplete if Mladic had managed to escape justice.

The details of Mladic's many years as a fugitive remain to be revealed. President Boris Tadic said on May 26 only that Mladic had been arrested on "Serbian soil." That's not surprising, because it has been widely assumed that Mladic was helped in hiding by a small circle of allies in the Serbian military. They even paid him a pension until 2002 and reportedly had him treated in a Belgrade military hospital. In recent years, the civilian government has made seemingly serious efforts to find him, but the ICTY prosecutors remained suspicious that -- like Pakistan and Osama bin Laden -- the military's cooperation was more charade than reality.

Mladic's arrest -- as well as Serbia's earlier arrest of Karadzic and Croatia's of its own war-crimes suspects -- is a testament to the power of international sanctions and pressure. For years, Serbia's primary foreign-policy goal has been to join the European Union. But the EU consistently refused until Belgrade cooperated fully with the ICTY. The EU policy was not always firm; genocide notwithstanding, some governments favored moving on from the Balkan wars and admitting Serbia, given its now-reformist government. But the Netherlands insisted on Mladic's apprehension, and under the European Union's consensus system, that was enough to block accession.

The Netherlands had its reasons not to turn its back on Srebrenica. Denied U.N. approval to call in airstrikes, Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica barely resisted in 1995 as Mladic's troops took over the designated U.N. "safe haven" and slaughtered its men and boys. With that shameful memory, the Netherlands insisted that the European Union would not admit Serbia until the military coughed up Mladic. The EU high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, was just arriving in Belgrade to reaffirm that message when Mladic was picked up. And on June 6, the ICTY's prosecutor was expected to report to the U.N. Security Council that Serbia was still not fully cooperating in efforts to apprehend Mladic. Serbia's accession to the European Union was simply not in the cards until it surrendered Mladic -- so it did.

The lesson of principled pressure for justice should not be lost elsewhere in the world. International tribunals do not have police or military forces at their disposal. To achieve their promise of justice and deterrence, they depend on international cooperation. Absent military intervention (rarely a realistic or advisable option), capturing war criminals requires sustained, principled pressure on governments that harbor suspects.

After Mladic's arrest, accused mass murderers elsewhere in the world will sleep less soundly. Alleged killers such as Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Libya's leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and the Congolese military commander Bosco Ntaganda may have figured that they can sit tight and evade international warrants for their arrests. Others, such as Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, may have figured that they can hunker down at home and avoid future indictments that may be cast their way. But their calculations are only as good as the international community allows.

Inevitably, circumstances change. If the pressure is kept on, governments that safeguard accused official killers ultimately conclude the cost is simply too high. The international pressure can also bolster reformist forces that are most interested in the rule of law -- such as those cheering in Belgrade today. The tyrants of the world have certainly noticed that the prospects for evading international justice are diminishing. Let's hope the major powers have as well. Mladic's arrest should be time not only to celebrate, but also to reaffirm international commitment to see justice done.

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