Today Ratko Mladić, the former Bosnian Serb General, was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The crimes that Mladić was found to have committed occurred more than twenty years ago, from 1992-1995, in Bosnia. Specifically, Mladić was found to bear criminal responsibility for the genocidal killing of more than 7000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, the siege of Sarajevo, and widespread attacks on the non-Serb population in numerous municipalities across Bosnia. This judgment marks the last judgment to be handed down by the ICTY, though there remains at least one re-trial to be handled by the successor institution to the ICTY, the Mechanism for the International Criminal Tribunals.
In many ways today’s judgment was not a surprise, as it was foreshadowed by the conviction last year of Mladić’s political partner in crime, Radovan Karadžić, for essentially the same crimes. No doubt the actual judgment, which should be released later today and will certainly run in the hundreds of pages, will contain nuggets to be analyzed by historians, lawyers, and concerned citizens.
However, the handing down of the judgment today contained some drama and symbolism that says something about the court and the project of international criminal justice. When Mladić first came into the courtroom today, he flashed a smile and a thumbs up to the cameras in a last show of bravado and arrogance. But as presiding judge Alphons Orie began to read a summary of the judgment, Mladić’s trademark haughtiness crumbled. First, he asked for a bathroom break, and disappeared for nearly an hour, during which his blood pressure was apparently checked. Shortly after the proceedings resumed, he suddenly stood and began shouting at the judges, a last, desperate attempt to interrupt and derail the proceedings. Judge Orie would have none of it. As you can see in the video below, he patiently asked Mladić to sit down and quiet himself, and when Mladić refused, Orie had him removed from the courtroom.
There is no pleasure in seeing a man lose his nerve at the moment of conviction and sentencing, but something was revealed in Mladić’s behavior today, and the response of the court. To those who wonder whether high-level perpetrators of atrocity crimes care about the pronouncements of international criminal tribunals, today’s events suggest that, at least in Mladić’s case, he did. He was a fugitive from justice for fifteen years, and when the long arm of the law finally caught up with him, he sought to the very end to avoid its condemnation. One can only hope that the today’s scene at the ICTY courtroom in The Hague will give some measure of pause to today’s perpetrators, vain and full of themselves as they are, that they too might one day, even if years or decades from now, find themselves facing the complete condemnation of their legacy in an international courtroom.
Further, the court’s conduct today suggests that the ICTY has itself learned and progressed in the nearly twenty-five years of its existence. The court has often been criticized for allowing itself to be hijacked by the antics of disruptive defendants – notably Slobodan Milošević and Vojislav Šešelj – who succeeded in delaying their trials for years, too often indulged by judges who were afraid that silencing the accused would undermine the legitimacy of the proceedings. Moreover, a central criticism of the ICTY has been that the sentences handed down have been too low; just last year many were shocked when Karadžić received a forty year sentence rather than life.
Today felt different. As the judgment was being handed down, Mladić tried to resort to the old playbook of disruption, but was quickly shut down and dispatched from the courtroom. The wheels of justice continued to turn, and this time a fitting sentence was handed down: life in prison. Now condemned in law and history, Mladić’s fate is to return to his prison cell to live out his last days, finally silenced for good.
There is much to criticize about the proceedings at the ICTY, and there is no doubt that it has all taken too long. But at the same time, how far we’ve come in just under 25 years. The ICTY shows that where there is political will and support, international justice can succeed. Today that vision is threatened, but the precedent of the ICTY is now established and will never disappear, giving hope for accountability in the future.
Image: Michel Porro/Getty