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.

“I don’t curse anyone,” Kada Hotic told me, “not even those who caused me this pain.” In July 1995, Kada lost every grown male in her family to a massacre in the Bosnian mountain town of Srebrenica. She turned that pain into action, founding a large women’s association advocating for survivors’ rights. Almost 16 years later, she’s seeing partial justice. Yesterday, the man accused of masterminding that atrocity was arrested in neighboring Serbia.

Ratko Mladic commanded the army of Republika Srpska and led the units that surrounded Srebrenica that summer. Famous footage shows him overseeing the separation of tens of thousands of women, children, and elderly from men and boys. The first group was transported to Bosniak-held territory and reassured that the others would only be held for questioning. Within days, 8,000 men and boys had been killed.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia indicted Mladic on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. International law assures a victim’s right to justice, and Kada was clear on the kind she wanted: The chief perpetrators should be captured and arrested, but their lives spared. She simply wanted to hear them admit their guilt. “We don’t have to love each other, just respect each other’s rights.” But in Bosnia, justice was sacrificed to neutrality by an international community ambivalent – first about intervention to stop the bloodshed, and second about whether to pursue the perpetrators.

My 18 years of involvement in Balkan affairs started during my tenure as US ambassador to Austria, where we housed the US mission to Bosnia until Sarajevo, under siege, was deemed safe enough for an embassy. We hosted negotiations that led to a Bosniak-Croat Federation; conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with politicians, journalists, activists, and a host of other citizens, including refugees; and organized three international symposia of policymakers.

The problem with impartiality

Throughout, I was struck by the extent to which outsiders were using the principle of impartiality to distance themselves from responsibility.

Impartiality has been a fundamental principle of peacekeeping since the 1950s. Peacekeepers were to show no preference among warring sides – a kind of neutrality. Interpretation evolved from intervention to intervention, and “evenhandedness” was the catch-word when the Dayton Accords ended the war in late 1995.

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.

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.

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