Is time up for Bosnia's accused?

NATO is toughening its stance toward war criminals, 25 of whom may be in Serb Republic.

Entering the fourth year of its peacekeeping operation in Bosnia, NATO may be adopting a more aggressive approach to detaining those accused of war crimes.

The NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) arrested Radislav Kristic, a Bosnian Serb general, earlier this month. This has brought many to believe that the tribunal established in The Hague to prosecute those responsible for atrocities in the former Yugoslavia is at last getting the sort of active cooperation from SFOR that it has been lobbying for.

Tally so far

Up to now, just one individual has been found guilty and sentenced by The Hague tribunal since it was set up in 1993. A total of 56 people currently face public indictment. Twenty-six are in custody; one is on provisional release. Of the remaining 29, 25 are believed to be at liberty in the Serb Republic.

Lt. Cmdr. Glenn Chamberlain, SFOR spokesman, insists that NATO's mission in Bosnia remains focused on maintaining military security. Under the 1995 US-brokered Dayton peace agreement, he says, responsibility for arresting war criminals rests with the authorities in Bosnia, Croatia, and Yugoslavia. While SFOR troops may detain individuals indicted on war-crimes charges, "We're not out there searching house to house for these people," he says.

But Commander Chamberlain acknowledges that there has been a "shift" in SFOR's role. Now that most of its immediate military tasks have been accomplished, he says, SFOR can turn more toward "civilian affairs," such as supporting the internationally supervised return of Bosnian refugees to their homes.

Since the continuing influence of those accused of war crimes is regarded as a significant obstacle to refugee return, SFOR will take on a more aggressive approach to detaining war criminals, some observers believe.

"SFOR has changed its position," says an official at the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international body that effectively runs Bosnia. "The first year they only had military implementation; the next year the British arrested a few war criminals. This year we asked them if they would assist the return of refugees all over Bosnia, and they agreed. They've clearly changed their stance towards arrests."

Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald of the United States, president of the war-crimes tribunal, has called for a more aggressive international response to the continued liberty of individuals indicted by the tribunal. Recently she complained of noncooperation on the part of the Serb Republic, one of two entities into which Bosnia was divided under the Dayton accord.

Best-known indictees

Of those indicted by The Hague tribunal, the two best known are Radovan Karadzic, political leader of the 1992-95 Serb rebellion in Bosnia, and Ratko Mladic, his military henchman. General Mladic is believed to have spent time in Serbia since disappearing from public view, while Dr. Karadzic is reported to move between Visegrad and Pale, both in the eastern part of the Serb Republic.

General Kristic is charged with involvement in the massacre of thousands of prisoners following the fall of the United Nations safe area of Srebrenica to Serb gunmen in 1995. He is believed to have engaged in negotiations with the tribunal before his arrest, possibly seeking a plea bargain involving testimony against Mladic and Karadzic.

SFOR has persistently argued that the arrest of certain war criminals might lead to popular unrest, but the muted response to Kristic's detention doesn't support this.

"We've never seen a big danger," says the OHR official. "Our assessment has never been that there would be a huge public outcry."

Privately, OHR officials believe that many in the Serb Republic would welcome, or at the very least acquiesce in, the arrest of Mladic and Karadzic. Neither has an obvious constituency in the political climate created by postwar reconstruction.

"I hope people would not see individuals who have committed war crimes as being representative of their views," says Hague tribunal spokeswoman Kelly Moore. "Justice isn't a popularity contest. If individuals are accused of war crimes by the international tribunal, then justice demands they face charges and stand trial."

While there is a consensus that detaining Karadzic or Mladic would not pose insurmountable logistical difficulties, there is a perception among Bosnians that the two men, particularly Karadzic, could make awkward revelations in court.

Chances to arrest before

"They've had chances to arrest them many times in the past," says Senad Pecanin, editor of Dani, a popular Sarajevo political weekly. "My opinion is that no one side really wants to arrest Karadzic and Mladic."

He points out that the threat of Karadzic revealing details about his negotiations before and during the war with Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian politicians, as well as his wartime dealings with international mediators, might offer him considerable political capital.

Says Smail Cekic, director of the Bosnian Institute for the Research of Crimes Against Humanity and International Law in Sarajevo: "At the moment there isn't the political will, and that's why the war criminals haven't been arrested, although we know where they live and where they travel.

"It isn't a question of whether the SFOR is serious or not about detaining them.... Detaining them isn't a problem. They'll be detained if a clear political and military decision is made."

The arrest of Kristic, and SFOR's apparent acknowledgment of its shifting role, could indicate that this decision is imminent.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.