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(Brussels) – The conviction of Radovan Karadzic, the former president of the Republic of Srpska, for his role in the Srebrenica genocide and other grave crimes shows that persistence can deliver justice, Human Rights Watch said today.

Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic appears in the courtroom for his appeals judgement at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague on July 11, 2013.  © 2013 Reuters

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found Karadzic guilty of 10 out of 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide and sentenced him to 40 years’ imprisonment. The judges acquitted Karadzic of one count of genocide, finding that the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt his genocidal intent in relation to crimes committed in seven municipalities across Bosnia and Herzegovina. Karadzic was a founding member of the Serbian Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina and president of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity, during the war in Bosnia, from 1992 to 1995.

“Victims and their families have waited for over two decades to see Karadzic’s day of reckoning,” said Param-Preet Singh, senior international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. “The Karadzic verdict sends a powerful signal that those who order atrocities cannot simply wait out justice.”
Photo: A woman holds a photo of her missing son as Bosnian Muslim relatives of the victims and survivors of the Srebrenica massacre meet with Dutch former peacekeeping troops. © 2007 Reuters

The tribunal first indicted Karadzic and his Bosnian Serb wartime commander, Ratko Mladic, in July 1995 for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in several municipalities across Bosnia and Herzegovina. In November 1995, the ICTY charged both Karadzic and Mladic in a separate indictment with genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes based on the Bosnian Serb army’s mass execution of at least 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys after the fall of Srebrenica. The Yugoslav tribunal and the International Court of Justice have determined that the Srebrenica killings constitute genocide. It is the worst crime committed on European soil since World War II.

Following their indictment, both men went into hiding. In July 2008, Serbian authorities arrested Karadzic in Belgrade. Serbian police arrested Mladic in May 2011. Mladic’s trial is ongoing, with an expected completion date of late 2017.

Karadzic’s trial began in October 2009. But Karadzic, who represented himself throughout the trial, boycotted the opening, claiming he needed more time to prepare his case. Although both the trial and appeals chamber found that he had enough time to prepare, the judges adjourned the trial until March 2010.

In June 2012, after the prosecution finished presenting its evidence, Karadzic asked the judges to acquit him on all 11 counts in the indictment. The trial chamber acquitted Karadzic of one count of genocide in seven municipalities across Bosnia and Herzegovina, while maintaining the other charges against him. The prosecution appealed, and in November 2013, the appeals chamber reinstated the genocide charge. The trial ended in October 2014.

The arrest of Karadzic and Mladic shows the value of a consistent and principled approach to war crimes accountability by the European Union, Human Rights Watch said. The EU conditioned closer ties with Serbia on its full cooperation with the ICTY, including the arrest and surrender of the remaining fugitives to the tribunal. The arrest and surrender of both men should remind other countries that international justice only works when they lend their robust support to enforce it. Of the 161 suspects the tribunal indicted, none remain at large.

Despite the ICTY’s success, thousands of cases involving grave abuses during the Bosnian war are outstanding. The authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina will try most of these cases, while some others may be heard in courts in Serbia and Croatia or in courts outside the region under universal jurisdiction principles.

The State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina has concluded more than 250 war crimes cases, with a backlog of more than 1,000 cases. Authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been slow in carrying out a national war crimes strategy designed to focus efforts on the most serious cases, with efforts hampered by insufficient capacity and funding, particularly at the district and cantonal level. Some senior officials have impeded efforts toward justice and have openly questioned the legitimacy of the State Court and the Prosecutor’s Office.

“National trials remain critical to hold the many others responsible for atrocities during the Bosnian war to account,” Singh said. “Officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina should move beyond shrill rhetoric aimed at undercutting accountability and instead strengthen efforts to bring war criminals to justice.”

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