Serbia's tipping-point arrest

Victor Peskin
22 July 2008

Each year since the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, the anniversary underscores the failure to apprehend its two alleged architects, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Days after the thirteenth commemoration of the murder of around 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries, there was a break in this particular cloud: namely, the news of the arrest late on 21 July 2008 of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb president, found to have been living in Belgrade.

The news of Karadzic's detention is stunning enough (see Dejan Djokic, "Radovan Karadzic's capture: a moment for history", 22 July 2008). What makes it even more timely and important is that it reinforces the signal sent a week earlier, on 14 July, by an application for an arrest-warrant against Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on the charge of war-crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur (see "The Omar al-Bashir indictment, the ICC and Darfur", 15 July 2008). The respective bodies seeking the opportunity to try al-Bashir and Karadzic may be different - the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) respectively - but taken together, these initiatives highlight the centrality of transnational justice institutions and processes to conflict- and post-conflict situations in different parts of the world.

Victor Peskin is an assistant professor in the school of global studies at Arizona State University. He is the author of International Justice in Rwanda and the Balkans: Virtual Trials and the Struggle for State Cooperation (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Also by Victor Peskin in openDemocracy:

"After Zoran Djindjic: the future of international criminal justice" (28 March 2003),

"The Omar al-Bashir indictment: the ICC and the Darfur crisis" (15 July 2008).

The wrong climate

Radovan Karadzic is being held at the special court building in Belgrade, where he awaits transfer to the ICTY in The Hague to face charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes: a series of atrocities that one tribunal judge famously said were "truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history". Since the death of Slobodan Milosevic in custody in The Hague in March 2006, the importance of Karadzic and Mladic (the former Bosnian Serb military commander) to the tribunal's mission has grown; the other outstanding suspect, Goran Hadzic, is regarded as a less important if also heinous figure. Now, the upcoming trial of Karadzic will give the ICTY a chance to redeem itself after the missteps of Milosevic's unsatisfactory and in the end truncated four-year trial.

The shock at Karadzic's arrest is all the more intense in light of the bizarre circumstances of his "underground" life as a medical therapist of exotic appearance. In contrast to Mladic who has long been considered to be in Serbia, Karadzic's whereabouts have been much in dispute. That he was variously reported to be in Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro has made it consistently more difficult for the ICTY to sustain international attention and pressure for his arrest, either from the Serbian government or from international peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. Mladic, it seemed, was closer at hand.

It is all too easy to forget how in the early months of 2008 political developments meant that the chances of finding Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic seemed if anything to be receding. Kosovo's declaration of independence on 17 February 2008 caused widespread anger and a sense of humiliation in Serbia at the loss of what many Serbs regard as their spiritual heartland, and in the aftermath of this event international pressure on Belgrade to arrest Karadzic and Mladic eased as part of western efforts to placate these sentiments.

The acquittal in April at the ICTY of the former Kosovar Albanian prime minister (and, before that, Kosovo Liberation Army [KLA] commander) Ramush Haradinaj - who had been prosecuted in connection with atrocities against Serbs in Kosovo - further alienated many Serbs from the tribunal. Resentment in Serbia raised international fears of a resurgence of nationalism and renewed armed conflict over Kosovo. The prospect of a return to confrontation in Kosovo - and at least the effective partition of the territory resulting from entrenched Serb control of its northern enclave around Mitrovica - made progress over the pursuit of the war-crimes suspects look even more remote.

The decisive influences in tipping the balance towards Karadzic's capture seem to relate to events in Serbian politics, including the combination of the presidential (20 January / 3 February) and parliamentary elections (11 May) in Serbia, which resulted in a narrow but politically potent margin of victory for the country's pro-European candidates and blocs. In the first, Boris Tadic won a hard-pressed contest in the second-round run-off against his ultra-nationalist rival Tomislav Nikolic. In the second - after the European Union and Serbia had on 29 April signed the important stabilisation and association agreement (SAA), even without requiring Belgrade to cooperate fully with the ICTY - Tadic's party emerged strong enough to lead the formation of a pro-European coalition government, albeit one that includes the Socialist Party of the late Slobodan Milosevic (see Daniel Korski & Ivan Zverzhanovski, "Serbia's climate change", 1 July 2008).

Also in openDemocracy on transnational justice after the wars of ex-Yugoslavia:

Nick Grono, "The International Criminal Court: success or failure?" (9 June 2008),

Alex de Waal, "Sudan and the International Criminal Court: a guide to the controversy" (14 July 2008),

Marlies Glasius, "What is global justice and who is it for? The ICC's first five years" (21 July 2008),

Eric Gordy, "Radovan Karadzic: the politics of an arrest" (22 July 2008),

Dejan Djokic, "Radovan Karadzic's capture: a moment for history" (22 July 2008).

During this election season, international human-rights activists strongly criticised the European Union's concession to Serbia as undermining the tribunal and weakening the EU's policy of making Serbia's progress toward EU membership conditional on full cooperation with the ICTY. In response, EU officials argued that the election of a hardline nationalist government led by a Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader such as Tomislav Nikolic would have sealed Serbia's defiance of the ICTY; whereas rule by the moderate Tadic would at least hold open the possibility of real cooperation. Yet even after the assembly election, in late May, the mood-music was not positive, as some EU officials acknowledged that signing the pre-membership agreement with Serbia had weakened the EU's leverage. "We're obviously not in a strong position" in relation to Mladic and Karadzic, one said in an interview in Brussels; "It's obvious it is the wrong climate to get [them] to The Hague."

The right decision

Major changes in politics are often apparent only in retrospect. The evidence suggests that the political climate regarding the war-crimes suspects grew more positive in Serbia in June-July 2008; one indication was the arrest on 11 June of Stojan Zupljanin. As the new government took office after weeks of post-election negotiation, both President Tadic and the new prime minister Mirko Cvetkovic expressed their resolve to do what it takes to earn the status of an EU candidate, as the momentum for an EU decision on whether to implement the pre-membership agreement increased.

The internal political developments in Serbia, and the Serbia-European Union relationship, are evidently key factors in contributing to the circumstances in which Radovan Karadzic's arrest became possible (see "Radovan Karadzic: the politics of an arrest", 22 July 2008). Yet they do not easily form the whole explanation. In principle it would still have been possible for a pro-European Belgrade government to buy yet more time - conscious of the domestic dangers of action against fugitives who are celebrated as well as notorious. The Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic paid with his life in March 2003 for following such a course.

It is important then to include in the equation the factor of political courage. The Tadic government's decision to arrest Karadzic may be envisioned as more than an act of political opportunity or calculation, but as an effort on behalf of the Serbian nation to redeem the trauma of the Djindjic assassination. This conjecture will gain plausibility if Boris Tadic and Mirko Cvetkovic eschew the familiar expedience of either disavowing responsibility for arrests or claiming political necessity.

It is, after all, the trait of true leadership to make accountability for the crimes of the past a moral imperative. As a result of the action of 21 July 2008 - and what happens over the next few weeks and months - the fourteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre may yet be a historic one in the annals of international justice.

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