Mladic arrest: Has the West now learned not to be impartial on war crimes?
In Bosnia, outsiders for too long relied on impartiality to distance themselves from responsibility. Now, with Mladic's arrest, we must send a message that survivors will be at the center of concerns on security.
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When the Pentagon charged US commanders to focus on protecting their own troops, the US admiral on the ground insisted that it wasn’t their job to pick up war criminals. He went so far as to say that he’d walk out the back door of a cafe if General Mladic walked in the front. Many internationals, not wanting to get involved in what they saw as an age-old ethnic or religious feud, quibbled about their mandate. “Arrest” or just “detain”? One American general explained to me that it wasn’t “evenhanded” to arrest more Serbs than Bosniaks (Muslims) or Croats, even though human rights groups assessed that Serbs committed 90 percent of atrocities.Skip to next paragraph
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What about fairness?
Lost in the fog was how impartiality, neutrality, and evenhandedness are not interchangeable. Absent from the word games was the concept of fairness. But while decisionmakers stumbled over words, they ignored that indecision sends its own signal to the guilty: Expect impunity. Hide long enough, and you’ll remain free.
Fearing the tangle of interventions, many of those with the power to arrest war criminals disregarded the principle that fairness means upholding the rights of victim and perpetrator alike. There are no disinterested parties in the pursuit of justice, and from Egypt to Yemen to Libya, this lesson is finally dawning on us.
Sending a message to the world
In my current work with leaders from 40 conflict areas, the theme of “justice, not revenge” has come up time and again. A refugee of the Bosnian war, who works across the globe, told me that the meaning of Mladic’s arrest is reflected in every other war zone: “Peace without justice is what millions live and breathe. This arrest isn’t about a particular conflict or a particular victim – it’s about sending a message to the rest of the world.”
So far, the world is hearing much about Serbia’s improved chances of EU membership, but that should not be the fundamental message. While Mladic remained at large in peacetime, I witnessed how Bosnians remained psychological hostages to the wartime. And so the message is that survivors must be the center of our thinking on global security. However uncomfortable the implications may be, fairness underlies impartiality; evenhandedness is only fair if it is just. As my friend put it: “Impunity offers temporary political relief, mostly to the outsiders. Genuine stability comes only when justice and accountability meet reconciliation and compassion.” Sixteen years after the day she lost her husband, brothers, and son, Kada Hotic can sleep better tonight.
Swanee Hunt served as US ambassador to Austria from 1993 to 1997. Her forthcoming book, “Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security,” will be published in the fall by Duke University Press.