The arrest on 26 May 2011 of Ratko Mladić, the military leader who led Bosnian Serb forces during the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, and his subsequent transfer to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, continues to dominate global headlines. Mladić’s appearance before the tribunal on 3 June opens a legal process that will present copious evidence on the charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws of war made against him.
The swiftness of the events of these days - Mladić’s detention by security police in the village in northern Serbia where he was hiding, presentation to a court at the ministry of justice in Belgrade, and extradition to The Hague - has tended to overshadow attention to the fact that it has taken almost sixteen years for the Serbian authorities to capture Mladić since his indictment by the ICTY in 1995.
In any event, Mladić’s fate now is predictable. If the proceedings against Slobodan Milošević give any indication, Mladić's trial will be a drawn-out affair (assuming he does not succumb to poor health); it will likely end with a guilty verdict. The ICTY too will then be close to concluding its work: it has indicted 161 war criminals from the former Yugoslavia, and now has only one remaining fugitive to apprehend before its mandate is fulfilled.
Once the trial gets fully underway and involved in the often terrible detail of the actions at issue, the lofty words from national and international leaders on the implications of Mladić’s arrest for justice worldwide will doubtless fade into the background. The reaction of United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon (“This is an historic day for international justice”) was typical, while Serbia’s president, Boris Tadić, emphasised the importance of the event for Serbia and its neighbours: “Today we close a chapter in our history, which brings us one step closer to full reconciliation in the region.” The United States president, Barack Obama, echoed the theme in suggesting that the arrest will “deepen the ties among the people in the region.”
But even now, some uncomfortable realities cast doubt on this optimistic rhetoric. Most striking are regional opinion-polls, such as the findings of the Serbian government’s Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal in a survey published on 15 May: 40% of Serbian nationals dubbed Mladić a hero, and 78% admitted that they would not report Mladić’s whereabouts to authorities. This poll is just one sign that reconciliation is a long way off, and that the ethnic-national divisions that fueled violence in the wars of the 1990s - rehashed daily in national broadsheets and on television (where coverage of war-crimes proceedings could compete with any soap opera) - hold strong.
A space for reconciliation
The experience of recent years is that the international judicial process - whether at The Hague, or across the region - reinforces rather than lessens these divisions. The case of Tihomir Purda, a Croatian army veteran accused by Serbia of committing crimes against imprisoned soldiers during the war, is an example. Purda was arrested in Bosnia on an Interpol warrant issued by Serbia in January 2011, but after months of wrangling - with Serbia demanding Purda’s extradition, Croatia demanding his release, and Bosnia caught in the middle - the charges were dropped.
Indeed, local judicial proceedings often involve multiple states. But as long as each side remains wedded to its own unyielding narrative of what happened during the 1990s, it is politically suicidal for national leaders to cede ground. In regional reactions, there’s no room for nuance. This was evident when Croatian prime minister Jadranka Kosor declared that “Croatia, as a victim of aggression, welcomes the capture of Ratko Mladić” - a highlighting of Croatia’s victim status that emphasises how justice issues are filtered through national mythologies.
The same disjoint also played out in April 2011, when the ICTY convicted former Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac of crimes against humanity for their role in “the permanent removal of the Serb population” of the Krajina region in 1995. On the day of the conviction, the cover of the popular Croatian newspaper Večernji List lauded Gotovina as a “hero”.
The signs are that Mladić’s arrest and trial will do nothing to change enduring post-war prejudice, engender reconciliation, or achieve “closure.” That will begin to happen only when prosecutions take place locally, rather than internationally; and when the accused are not high-profile and charismatic military leaders, but instead ordinary people who have returned to lead ordinary lives after their wartime deeds.
But besides punitive legal action in a local context, another mechanism for genuinely settling the accounts of the war deserves attention: a regional Truth and Reconciliation Commission. An early effort to build such an institution in Serbia in 2003 collapsed after its members were unable to agree on a mandate. A working commission would allow people on all sides of the conflicts to give testimony, bear witness, and engage in extra-judicial discussions. This is important for the historical record and would challenge the region’s post-conflict stalemate.
It may be illusory to seek “full national reconciliation”. But the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would amount to an admission from all sides that in an atmosphere of polarisation, alternative narratives - at both the national and individual level - are at least worth listening to.