Ratko Mladic's arrival at Hague bolsters promise of international courts

Ratko Mladic's extradition to The Hague Tuesday to face 11 counts of war crimes in Bosnia reflects a growing acceptance of seeking justice in global courts instead of the battlefield.

Ivan Milutinovic/Reuters
Former Serbian military commander Ratko Mladic travels in a white armored vehicle as he is transported in a police convoy from a Belgrade courthouse and jail complex to the airport May 31.

Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic was placed on a Hague-bound airplane Tuesday after losing his appeal not to be sent there on 11 counts of war crimes in Bosnia. His arrival the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), set up in 1993, further legitimizes global efforts to establish laws and courts to prosecute crimes that for most of human history took place with impunity and were usually resolved by wars, treaties, time, and forgetting.

Attempts at such forms of international justice have been fraught, imperfect, often highly political, expensive, and selective, many jurists will agree. But in the past two decades, the world has increasingly viewed referrals to The Hague of those accused of large-scale atrocities as the norm – a sea change in the way the world does business. Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi is under investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Sudan's President Omar Al Bashir has been indicted for war crimes in Darfur.

At The Hague, Mladic, who was in hiding for 16 years, will join his war-partner Radovan Karadzic at the same suburban jail where former Serb President Slobodan Milosevic died in 2005. Mr. Milosevic was the acknowledged mastermind of the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

“The ICTY [tribunal] has always seen these three as the most significant players,” says Mark Ellis of the International Bar Association in London. “Mladic is indicted for direct responsibility. He is the individual closest to the orders being given. I think if the court had failed to try all three it may have been seen as a failure.”

Mladic is expected to face 11 counts in leading a “criminal enterprise” that involved the Srebrenica massacre, the siege of Sarajevo, and other crimes of “ethnic cleansing” that brought years of carnage and terror to Europe, a short plane ride from cities like Vienna and Geneva.

“Justice is sometimes slower than you would like … there are a lot of holes and weaknesses in the system,” says Mr. Ellis. “But we are moving from impunity to accountability. Those that commit heinous crimes can no longer easily think they will get away with it. For those of us who watch this, it is really a remarkable development.”

Mladic was captured last week at a small farmhouse in the Serbian region of Vojvodina near the city of Novi Sad. For at least five years, until Mr. Milosevic was sent to The Hague after a mass rejection of his rule in Belgrade, Mladic was often hiding in the open, seen at weddings and on the ski slopes. For the past eight years, he has been fully a fugitive.

His arrest lifts the prime argument against Serbia joining the European Union – both The Netherlands and possibly Ireland were ready to deny Belgrade candidacy status. Mladic's arrest was announced by Serb President Boris Tadic on Thursday even as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was headed to Belgrade to issue a warning that Serbian candidacy talks next fall were in jeopardy. However, Mr. Tadic insists the arrest was not linked to EU candidacy issues.

Since the formation of UN tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda, a significant set of international justice measures and mechanisms has emerged. These include the ICC, which was created in 2002, The Hague trial of Liberia’s Charles Taylor, the development of legal principles like “universal jurisdiction,” and the UN Security Council’s recent willingness to refer individuals – and even heads of state – to The Hague.

The Yugoslav tribunal has indicted some 161 people and has been slowly shutting down. But it and other courts have developed rules, procedures, jurisprudence, and other experience and tools necessary for handling fair trails.

Ana Uzelac, an expert on the Yugoslav tribunal, argues that while it is folly to assume international courts can solve all problems or be expected to arrive on the world scene in a state of perfection, progress can be seen.

“There is a new legal-political paradigm that if you do bad things and you are small or mid-sized, you go to The Hague,” she says. “We aren’t going to go back on that now. Is this justice? People argue that Srebrenica happened after the [Yugoslav] tribunal was formed. But this is not convincing. Bringing Mladic to justice offers a great deal of legitimacy. However delayed. We can say, ‘Look, he is here at The Hague.’ That is an important message to send.”

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