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Ratko Mladic: How I Helped Bring Him Down

Aryeh Neier

At the beginning of August 1992, when I was Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, I issued a call for the establishment of an international criminal tribunal to try those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the wars in the former Yugoslavia. We named 10 political, military and militia leaders who should be investigated by such a tribunal, including General Ratko Mladic. That call coincided with the publication of news stories on death camps in Bosnia by Roy Gutman in New York's Newsday and confirmation of Gutman's reporting by the U.S. State Department. As a result, our call for a tribunal quickly won support. By October, the United Nations Security Council had established a commission to investigate war crimes; by December, Acting U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger endorsed the call for a tribunal, providing his own list of 10 persons to be investigated that also included Mladic. By the following February, the U.N. Security Council directed the preparation of a detailed plan for a tribunal, and by May that plan was approved and the tribunal-the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY)-was established.

With the arrest of Mladic, all the major war criminals on all sides of the war in ex-Yugoslavia, except a few who died before they could be brought to justice, have been apprehended. It is a result that those who led the effort to establish the ICTY nearly two decades ago could not have imagined. There had been no such body since Nuremberg and Tokyo in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Then, the Nazis and the Japanese military had been defeated. The victorious allies occupied their lands and could ensure that war criminals were captured and brought to trial. In contrast, when the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was established, Mladic's forces were winning the war in Bosnia. No one knew how they might be apprehended.

While the war in Bosnia was under way, I traveled frequently to Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo, the capitals of the three countries involved in the war. On my visits, I spoke frequently to associations of lawyers and others about the Tribunal. I recall that, particularly in Sarajevo, my listeners seemed to think that I was trying to humor them. They couldn't believe that Mladic, who was in charge of the shelling and sniping to which they were subjected daily, and that killed about 10,000 of the city's residents and injured a great many more, would someday be held accountable. Indeed, I only half-believed it myself. I thought I had to express confidence in the Tribunal because that was necessary if it was to have a chance to succeed.

In all, 161 defendants from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo have been indicted and 78 have been convicted (14 are still appealing). The remainder includes those still being tried or awaiting trial, those acquitted, and those referred to national courts. After the arrest of Mladic, only one defendant, who fled to Russia, remains at large. The trials have been conducted in accordance with international standards of due process of law. In addition, local courts in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia have been cooperating with the ICTY for the past several years and are conducting fair trials in which large numbers of lower-level war criminals are also being brought to justice.

The ICTY has inspired the establishment of several other tribunals to deal with major crimes committed in such places as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and Lebanon and the permanent International Criminal Court which is prosecuting crimes committed in half a dozen additional countries. By now, it should be apparent to tyrants, the military commanders who serve them and leaders of guerrilla forces that attempt to overthrow governments, that those principally responsible for atrocities anywhere in the world stand a good chance that they will someday face a reckoning. The arrest of General Mladic, nearly 16 years after the massacre at Srebrenica and after he was indicted by the ICTY, drives home that point.

Aryeh Neier is president of the Open Society Foundations. Prior to joining the Open Society Foundations in 1993, he served for 12 years as executive director of Human Rights Watch, of which he was a founder in 1978.

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