International criminal justice has hit a rough patch.
The work of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is under regular attack from the Trump administration, which opposes the Court’s intention to open an investigation into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. Just last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the United States would restrict visas for ICC officials involved in any such investigation, stating “The ICC is attacking America’s rule of law.”
Meanwhile, the Philippines is the latest member country to officially withdraw from the Court.
With headlines like this, the world could use a reminder of the profound importance of holding accountable those who commit genocide and war crimes. And tonight it’s going to get one, in a new documentary from FRONTLINE, titled, The Trial of Ratko Mladić.
Mladić, the head of the Bosnian-Serb army during the Bosnian war in the 1990s, was charged with crimes against humanity and genocide and stood trial in the Hague at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). After 530 trial days and over 600 witnesses, the judges took 11 months to decide whether he was responsible for the killing of thousands of Muslims during the war, among other crimes.
On Nov. 22, 2017, the judges delivered their verdict, finding Mladić guilty of 10 of the 11 charges against him, including responsibility for the genocidal killing of roughly 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995. He was sentenced to life if prison and is still trying to appeal the judgment.
The filmmakers, Rob Miller and Henry Singer, followed his trial from the very beginning, and watched as the first witness, Elvedin Pasic, took the stand on July 9, 2012 to tell the Court how his father and uncle were murdered with other men from his village in 1992. At the time, his village was 100 percent Muslim.
Later in the film, a lawyer for the prosecution shows a chart that lists different Bosnian village names and their Muslim populations before the war (in the thousands) and after (fewer than five). These communities, completely wiped out through mass executions and forced deportation, were unable to reconstitute themselves after the war. That is the point of genocide. And it is that intent that the prosecution team must prove for Mladić to be found guilty, as well as show that he was in command and control of the troops who carried out these operations.
During the course of the trial, the prosecution thinks it might have found even more evidence of Mladić’s crimes when a new mass grave site is discovered in the town of Tomasica in the municipality of Prijedor, in north-western Bosnia. In addition to the famous Srebrenica massacre, Mladić was charged with genocide there too. In 2013, the film crew traveled with Dermot Groome, a senior trial attorney at the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICTY, as he visited the site where hundreds of bodies were discovered.
Groome is seen surveying the site as bulldozers work in the background to remove the dirt and reveal the decades-old secret. The scale of the site is overwhelming and it becomes clear to Groome what an enormous undertaking it must have been create this mass grave in the first place: the equipment, the logistics, the manpower.
Later, the defense team tries to portray what happened at Prijedor, and elsewhere, not as a large, organized operation carried out by troops under Mladić’s command, but instead unrelated acts of vengeance carried out by Serbians whose families suffered during World War II, a claim that’s not credible after seeing what’s found buried there.
The forensic team on the ground in Tomasica discovered that the people largely died from “high velocity gunshot injuries.” Shot in the head or the chest.
“It’s clear these were not soldiers,” Groome said while the camera rests on what remains of a hand with a wedding band on one of its fingers.
The prosecution team was able to get this new evidence from Tomasica admitted in the middle of the trial, but in the end, the judges did not find Mladić guilty on this second count of genocide.
“I think for the Prijedor victims, if he isn’t found guilty of genocide, there will be enormous disappointment, because I think that they will feel the crimes they’ve experienced are being denied again,” Rob Miller, the filmmaker, said in an interview at the time of Mladić’s verdict.
But even with this loss, Mladić’s life sentence delivered desperately needed accountability and justice for crimes that would have otherwise been forgotten by the international community.
“You need these kinds of films every once in a while to remember why the project is worth fighting for,” Just Security’s Alex Whiting told me. Whiting previously worked as a senior trial attorney with the ICTY, where he was lead counsel in several war crimes and crimes against humanity prosecutions, and he wrote about the Mladić verdict when it was announced in 2017.
“The Ratko Mladić trial shows why accountability for international crimes is so important,” Whiting said. “Mladić claimed to have an alibi for the massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica and blamed rogue elements. He claimed that Serb forces were not responsible for the campaign of terror on Sarajevo, and that there was no ethnic cleansing of Bosnia in 1992. The Trial Chamber rejected all of these false defenses and found that Mladić and other Bosnian Serb leaders, including Radovan Karadžić, orchestrated the crimes for their own nationalist ends. Exposing how war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide are perpetrated by design and for a purpose is an essential step to preventing them in the future.”
The trial also set a crucial precedent, showing that with political will and commitment, international criminal justice can work, Whiting said. “Today if international criminal justice is facing challenges it is not because the investigations are impossible — they aren’t — but rather because the political will to do them has faded. Cases like Mladić are a permanent reminder that justice for such crimes is possible.”