This week in a courtroom in The Hague, three judges will announce their verdict in the criminal case against General Ratko Mladić, who two decades ago led the army of the Bosnian Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.
Twenty-two years ago, Mladić rode brazenly into the town of Srebrenica and presided over the slaughter of more than 6,000 Muslim men and boys who had gathered in what was supposed to be a United Nations safe area. It was the most massive crime against civilians committed on European soil since the Holocaust, and part of a broader campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia conceived and implemented by Mladić and his political partner, Radovan Karadžić.
Mladić barely tried to disguise his part in these crimes. He believed that he did not have to. He thumbed his nose at the world, certain that no one had the will or the power to stop him. Western nations were aghast at the brutal nature of these acts, but they looked on helplessly.
One institution took Mladić on. The UN had established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1993, while war was raging in the Balkans. The tribunal was underfunded, had no police force, and was generally greeted with skepticism and even derision in Western capitals, but its mission was to bring the perpetrators of crimes against civilians in the Balkans to justice.
Under the leadership of its persistent chief, Richard Goldstone, the tribunal’s Office of the Prosecutor dug in. Over the course of months, they managed to assemble eyewitness and material evidence. After considerable political maneuvering, they secured access to mass grave sites in Bosnia, and they built a case that tied the killings directly to Mladić, Karadžić, and other leaders of the Bosnian Serbs.
It took 16 years to hunt Ratko Mladić down. He was finally arrested in May 2011 at the age of 69 in a village in northern Serbia where he had been living under an assumed name. It took four more years of painstaking trial work to prove that Mladić was part of a “joint criminal enterprise” to carry out atrocities. But at last, 22 years later, this is Ratko Mladić’s judgment day.
In 2017, it is hard to remember that before 1993, there was no global mechanism to bring those who committed massive crimes to justice. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and its companion tribunal, which tried the leaders of the genocide in Rwanda, ushered in a new era based on a new principle: individual military and political leaders should be held personally accountable for crimes against civilians committed under their authority.
This week’s verdict is the final trial judgment for the tribunal. The court will be closing soon; the Rwanda tribunal shut down at the end of 2015. A successor institution to these tribunals, the International Criminal Court, is beset by challenges. Many of the world’s most powerful nations, including the United States, have refused to sign on to the court, and its work is bogged down by inefficiency and global politics.
International criminal justice remains a work-in-progress, but the ICC represents the best chance of continuing the principles brought to life by the UN tribunals. If the people of the world really mean “Never again,” then we have to find a way to engage with and support those institutions that give that sentiment teeth.
As the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia delivers its final trial judgment — and in all likelihood pronounces Ratko Mladić guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity — it is time to recognize the enormous achievements of the past two decades. The people of Bosnia have received justice after the ravage of their nation. Legal scholars will appreciate the significant contributions that the UN tribunals have made to the development of international law.
The rest of us should simply take a moment to appreciate that, thanks to these courts, we no longer live in a world where men like Mladić can preside over mass slaughter and assume that they can brag about it with impunity.Daniel Terris, director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University, is the author of “The Trials of Richard Goldstone,” to be published in 2018.