The Hague’s judgment against notorious Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžic, though delayed, is hugely important, writes Angela Mudukuti.
Victories in the field of international criminal justice at times seem few and far between. Too often, the system’s flaws and shortcomings grab headlines but as last week has shown, international criminal justice is alive and well.
Last week at the International Criminal Court, we saw the confirmation of charges against Ugandan Dominic Ongwen, the guilty plea of Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, and the conviction of former vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo. However, it is the monumental conviction and sentencing of Radovan Karadžic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia that takes centre stage.
After 498 trial days, the admission of 11 500 exhibits and having heard a total of 586 witnesses, the former Bosnian Serb leader Karadžic was found guilty of genocide committed during the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica and sentenced to 40 years in jail. His other crimes include crimes against humanity and violations of the laws of war.
Committed in the context of the 1992-96 Yugoslav War, his crimes left an indelible and dark mark on the history of the region. Identified as one of the masterminds behind what has been called the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II, Karadžic’s conviction is of huge significance.
Among the plethora of crimes he committed, the events at Srebrenica are particularly disturbing. Despite Srebrenica’s designation as a UN “safe zone”, just two years prior to the massacre, and the presence of peacekeepers, the slaughter of 8 000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys and the forced transfer of thousands more still took place.
In July 1995, Serbian forces captured this supposed “safe zone” and began by separating the men and boys from the women and girls. People were put in buses and sent to various locations. Nearly all the men were executed and dumped in mass graves. Chilling video footage of the executions exists. Twenty-one years later, there are still thousands of people missing and unaccounted for. In addition to the brutal executions more than 20 000 civilians were expelled from the area, a classic example of ethnic cleansing.
The reasons behind the failure by the UN forces to protect civilians is a story for another day but all, including former secretary-general Kofi Annan, recognised the failure of the international community to prevent the abominable savagery witnessed during this period in history.
In his capacity as the president of the so-called Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (later Republika Srpska or RS) and supreme commander of its armed forces, Karadžic was involved in crimes against humanity and violations of the laws of war committed by Serb forces during the armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This included persecution, extermination, murder, deportation, forcible transfer, unlawful attacks on civilians and taking UN hostages.
Karadžic is believed to have been central to the creation of an ideology that envisioned undisturbed proliferation of an ethnically homogeneous Bosnian Serb group. Making his vision a reality was the inexorable next step. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found that he was instrumental in the execution of this disturbing vision as he began to remove Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from what he and his forces considered Bosnian Serb-claimed territory.
Sarajevo also witnessed Karadžic’s sinister tactics as he orchestrated sniper attacks and ordered the shelling of areas inhabited by civilians. His objective was to spread terror and instil a deep sense of fear in the Bosnian Muslim inhabitants and use that to gain political leverage over his opponents. Civilians were mercilessly attacked. Forces under his command even shot and killed children as they played. His intense desire to exterminate an entire population meant everyone could be treated as a “legitimate” target.
Eventually, the now-70-year-old Karadžic was indicted by the tribunal on July 25, 1995, but only apprehended on July 21, 2008. Disguised behind a Gandalf-like beard and hair long enough to tie in a pony tail, he evaded capture for over a decade, while masquerading as a doctor schooled in methods of alternative healing.
While it has taken several years to finally arrest him and a few more to reach a conviction, it seems justice has been done. The matter may go on appeal which will add another few years to the plight of the victims, but at least crucial ground has been covered. Despite the time it has taken to bring him to book, it remains an essential milestone for international criminal justice and stands as a strong representation of a commitment to accountability and a reminder that the disease of impunity must be remedied.
Most importantly, his conviction will constitute a salient phase in the healing process for the survivors of the atrocities.
* Mudukuti is an international criminal justice lawyer.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.