The Law's Long Arm and the Mighty Pen: Justice for Ratko Mladic
A former war crimes prosecution attorney and PILPG advisory board member reflects on the arrest of Ratko Mladic, alleged mastermind of the Srebrenica genocide.
It is not often when one man is able to unite officials on both sides of the Atlantic – to work together – with common cause and devotion, for years. But this past week, an example of the U.S.-European transatlantic relationship emerged – along with a reminder of the just how long, the "long arm of the law" can stretch, when Ratko Mladic appeared in a courtroom in The Hague.
Mladic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, had been on the run for nearly sixteen years. And for nearly sixteen years, his name appeared on countless talking points, memos and speeches, used by U.S. and European officials, as well as three chief prosecutors of the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, all united in calling for the Government of Serbia to bring him to justice. His arrest was part of a global effort – pushed largely by a handful of officials on both side of the Atlantic – but an effort that was lead not by soldiers and sailors, using tanks and firepower, but by lawyers and bureaucrats, wielding pens and diplomacy.
And while his arrest and capture may have been justice delayed for some, for many visitors to the UN war crimes tribunal’s chambers last week, just seeing the once-powerful general in the dock, under the watchful eyes of U.N. guards, meant that justice would not be denied.
I must confess, I smiled when I heard the news of his capture – and to be honest – it made my day. That’s because as I smiled, I thought of all those people who, in some tragic way, this one man had brought together – prosecutors, investigators, victims, witnesses, families, government officials, diplomats, activists, and even the press – and who I knew would also pause and smile, as their collective belief in justice was renewed, and for some, even restored.
And if I am making confessions, I must also confess that, for a time, I had my doubts that he would ever see justice.
Ten years ago, I was serving as prosecution attorney at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague. And, while I had great respect for the seasoned prosecutors and investigators hard at work, I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed incredibly challenging for the international community to capture its alleged war criminals. These were the relatively early days of international justice and international tribunals as we know it (indeed, even the International Criminal Court had not yet been established), and there were few senior-level defendants in the dock.
Conspicuously missing was General Ratko Mladic.
I had been hired to work on the U.N. team prosecuting Radislav Krstic, Mladic’s lieutenant general during the Srebrenica genocide. Krstic was, at the time, the most senior military officer—and the first accused—to be tried for the crimes that took place after the fall of Srebrenica. But, as I learned more about the case—although my family is from the Balkans, I was conducting U.S. Army training at Fort Bragg when the genocide occurred and, like many Americans, didn’t know the extent of the slaughter—I became convinced that Mladic was the mastermind of the genocide. He was the perpetrator who most needed to be tried.
Just consider the devastation he caused. Sixteen years ago this July, some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica were slaughtered at the hands of Mladic’s Bosnian Serb Army and related forces. Most were killed in a full-scale military operation: blindfolded with their hands tied, they were lined up before freshly dug mass graves and shot. In other cases, their captors murdered unarmed men and boys where they were detained—slaughtering them by the hundreds in buildings, using volleys of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. Later, earth-moving equipment would pick them up and move them to other mass graves.
Witness to Genocide
As the junior attorney working on the Srebrenica prosecution team, I was witness to what General Mladic and his henchmen had left behind: mass graves, destroyed lives, and distraught mothers, sisters, and daughters. You only need to visit a mass grave once to feel what human evil can produce—and to smell it. Having seen numerous photographs of the dead in our forensic reports, I was prepared for the sight of decomposing bodies when I participated in my first U.N. mission to Srebrenica. What I was not prepared for was the smell.
The odor of death is sticky, and oddly sweet. It clings to your clothes, serving as a reminder of carnage and destruction, long after you’ve left a mass grave. It is a smell that nauseates, as though the human condition is preconditioned to object to death; and it is a smell that traveled with me when I returned to the tribunal, to the war crimes trials that seem so clinical, so clean, in comparison to the death and destruction that they were meant to prove.
I spent three years in the Netherlands before I returned to the U.S., but, like everyone who has been privileged enough to have worked at a war crimes tribunal, I never really left the experience behind. I now can’t be in a theater without glancing up to the projection room, thinking that, in a theater in Pilica, up the road from Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb gunmen used that vantage point to open fire on a room full of unarmed civilians. I never pass by a warehouse without thinking of the one in Kravica, where over 1,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered. And I never have these thoughts without thinking of two words: Ratko Mladic.
The Long Arm of Justice
For a while, I thought he’d never be brought to justice. I thought impunity would prevail, as it has done so often in human history. But something interesting has happened in the ten short years that I’ve been a lawyer: Many high-level perpetrators are being forced to face their crimes. This began with the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic and was followed by the arrests of Charles Taylor, Saddam Hussein, and, most recently, Radovan Karadzic. With each such arrest, I became more confident that Mladic’s time would run out. And finally, it did.
But we should remember that justice does not come quickly or effortlessly. As it is said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
In the coming days and months, if all goes well, good men and women will do something—in Serbia, in Bosnia, and in The Hague — and these heroes deserve our thanks. It started with a Serbian signature on an extradition order in Belgrade, and it will continue as people pore over documents, interview witnesses, risk their lives to testify, and participate in one of the most important trials in The Hague. Indeed, there is hard work yet to be done—but, once it is, both Mladić and the victims of Srebrenica will have their due justice.
It is interesting to pause, and remember, however, that Mladic, seemly untouchable, evaded justice for more than a decade.
In the early years, he almost flaunted his invincibility, showing up at soccer games and events in Belgrade.
But after the similarly accused President Slobodan Milosevic was arrested, he went into hiding.
He was rumored to have hid out in underground bunkers and secret safe houses, sometimes in Eastern Bosnia, sometimes in Serbia - the locations kept changing - but the predictions from some were constant: Mladic would never be taken alive.
Of course, that all changed late last month when a seemingly deteriorating Mladic was arrested in Lazarevo, a tiny town north of Belgrade.
Not unlike recently released videos of a haggard-looking Osama bin Laden, the one-time man-of-action Mladic appeared much less fearsome in modern reality than he did in the video clips from the war.
The Mighty Pen
The added irony is that it was Serbia, the country that he had been hiding in for so many years, that eventually gave him up to prosecutors in The Hague.
With a stroke of the pen, Serbian Justice Minister Snezana Malovic helped bring to justice one of the most powerful generals in recent European history.
By signing the extradition order, permitting Mladic’s transfer to The Hague, Ms. Malovic, a 34-year-old spectacled technocrat, who was likely still in school when Mladic was strutting through Srebrenica, set in motion a series of events that have led to Mladic’s appearance in court.
For anyone who has followed the military career of Gen. Ratko Mladic, it seems almost comical that a legendary man of action, a wartime hero to some, both feared and loved by many of his soldiers, rumored to have been protected by fierce supporters willing to die to protect him, was sent to The Hague, not by an invading military force, but by a woman with a legal degree, protected not by body armor but by the law.
Indeed, Mladic is not the first alleged war criminal that she's sent to The Hague with a stroke of her hand.
On her first day in office, Ms. Malovic signed the extradition order for Radovan Karadzic, wartime president of Serb-controlled Bosnia, sending him to the U.N. war crimes tribunal that now holds Mladic.
Considering the power of her signature, one must wonder: Is the pen now mightier than the sword?
Of course, we can look at Libya, Syria and Sudan to find examples of modern war crimes and atrocities, but we can also look to the march of justice - and the advent of lawyers and prosecutors - for progress in the arrest of some of the most powerful men in modern history.
As mentioned earlier, after the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic came the arrest of former presidents Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Charles Taylor of Liberia. But it did not stop there. Those arrests were followed by the arrests of Chad's former president, Hissene Habre, Cambodia's Khieu Samphan, the former president of the Khmer Rouge, and of course, Radovan Karadzic.
In each case, men who were once deemed untouchable - like Mladic - have been brought to justice, not by the sword, but by the pen. Lawyers and their investigative colleagues have built criminal cases and applied to judges to approve indictments and sign arrest warrants, oftentimes leading to diplomatic efforts and the arrests of a former strongmen.
With a stroke of a pen, impunity is slowly being banished from the world. Of course, impunity will not disappear overnight and it may always endure somewhere, but Ms. Malovic's signature demonstrates that once powerful men, bent on mass slaughter and destruction are increasingly facing justice in the courtroom, rather than exile in a well-appointed villa.
The proceedings in The Hague will not be lost on a new generation of lawyers and prosecutors, determined to bring an end to impunity, or those in danger of falling victim to the world's thugs and mass murders.
To the world's victims, Mladic’s initial court appearance is a sign of progress. To the world's perpetrators like President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan and Col. Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, it is a warning. Despite your swords, pens are ready and your days are numbered.
Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and senior fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, served on the Slobodan Milosevic and Ratislav Krstic (Srebrenica) genocide prosecution trial teams at the U.N. war crimes tribunal. A former White House Fellow/special assistant to Secretary Robert Gates and head of operations of the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, he is a partner at Ward & Ward PLLC, where he heads the firm’s international practice. This commentary is an adaptation of original articles that appeared in The New Republic and the Washington Times.
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