The Trial of General Ratko Mladić
Last year, the world commemorated the 20th anniversary of the end of the Bosnian War.
Although the Dayton Peace Accords ending the war were signed in November 1995, reminders of the Bosnian conflict are still very much present today.
One such reminder is the ongoing trial of General Ratko Mladić, former leader of the Bosnian Serb army, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
Who is Ratko Mladić?
Amongst the many ICTY defendants to go on trial in The Hague thus far, Ratko Mladić is one of the most notorious.
Mladić was born in 1942 in Kalinovik, Bosnia, which was then part of Tito’s Yugoslavia. His childhood was marked by the death of his father at the hands of pro-Nazi Croatian Ustaše troops in 1945. Mladić began his military career in 1961 as a regular officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army.
As Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in 1991, and ethnic tensions in the region escalated, Mladić quickly rose within military ranks to become a general of the Yugoslav Army. He became widely known for his Serbian nationalist motivations.
By 1992, Bosnia was truly splintering.
A Bosnian Serb political faction, the Republika Srpska, had solidified and adopted a strong Serbian nationalist streak, sparking a direct conflict between Bosnian Serbs, and the Bosniaks and Croats within the country. Mladić was appointed leader of the new Bosnian Serb army, the Vojska Republike Sprkse (VRS).
The incidents that followed in the next three years under his leadership of the VRS have been widely condemned as some of the most egregious crimes against humanity to be seen since World War II.
Indictment, Search, and Capture
Mladić was indicted by the ICTY at the height of the Bosnian war in 1995.
However, the Tribunal’s lack of enforcement measures immediately posed a difficulty: the actual arrest and transfer of Mladić to The Hague remained elusive. While the original indictment included charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and a number of war crimes, these charges were further amended at the end of 1995 to account for the killings at Srebrenica.
Mladić was a key piece to the ICTY puzzle – his evasion of arrest for more than a decade struck at the heart of the Tribunal’s mandate.
Mladić was eventually captured in hiding in May 2011 by Serbian special police forces in a small country town in northern Serbia. He was speedily transferred to The Hague, and, in 2012, eight years after his indictment was initially issued, hearings in the case of Prosecutor v Ratko Mladić began at the ICTY.
His ultimate arrest heralded a critical positive shift in attitudes towards the Tribunal in Serbia; after years of widespread reports that Mladić was being harboured by Serbian military forces, a demand by the Serbian leadership that all ICTY arrest warrants be complied with initiated a renewed search for the fugitive general.
Allegations against Ratko Mladić
The trial of Ratko Mladić centres on the charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, which further include persecution on political, racial and religious grounds, extermination and murder, forced deportation, the taking of hostages, and unlawfully inflicting terror upon the Bosnian Muslim and Croat populations of Bosnia.
The case is founded upon the concept of individual criminal responsibility whereby, under Article 7(1) of the ICTY Statute, Mladić’s planning, ordering, aiding, and abetting of a range of unlawful acts as leader of the VRS, allegedly makes him individually responsible for these crimes.
Mladić is further accused to have participated in a joint criminal enterprise, notably with former Republika Sprska President Radovan Karadžić, between October 1991 and November 1995, with the objective of permanently removing Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory in Bosnia & Herzegovina. He is accused of participating in specific joint criminal enterprises that aimed to:
- Spread terror amongst the civilian population of Sarajevo, most notably through sniping, shelling and siege tactics;
- Eliminate Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica; and
- Take UN personnel as hostages.
Issues at Trial
The prosecution case against Mladić seeks to establish his superior command and control over the unlawful acts committed by the VRS, and disprove the Defence claim that Mladić was a mere soldier following orders.
The case is certainly one of the largest the ICTY has ever conducted. The sheer volume of evidence brought by both sides, and the significance of the events the trial deals with, has left the trial still ongoing more than three years after its first hearing, with the current stage being the presentation of Defence witnesses.
The length of the trial has brought to light a critical conflict in rule of law issues at the ICTY.
On the one hand, a fundamental rule of law value is that justice is done through due process, wherein every aspect of the trial is conducted fairly and appropriately and the rights of all parties are respected and properly investigated.
On the other hand, however, another rule of law value is the accused’s right to an undelayed and expeditious trial.
The trial of Ratko Mladić has reilluminated these issues, with concerns being voiced about delay due to procedural matters, oversights and the generally slow-moving nature of international justice.
Ultimately, the difficulties of conducting an international trial must be remembered: while domestic trials can more readily be conducted expeditiously with immediate rights to access and evidence granted, the ICTY is tasked with dealing with an immense amount of material amidst international pressure, limited resources, and a challenging political climate in the Balkans, where cooperation is not always guaranteed.
While the question of what impact trials such as this have on post-conflict reconstruction awaits a conclusive answer, it is clear that the trial of Ratko Mladić has played a key role in the story of international criminal justice to date.
Ratko Mladić’s arrest, capture and trial have been heralded as a triumph for the rule of law in Europe and the world over, as the victims of the Bosnian War are finally offered a semblance of justice and the opportunity for their stories to be documented.
Notwithstanding the challenges it faces, the Mladić trial process actively reinforces that crimes of war are an important matter for global justice.
Where the reaction of a civilised global community is to put perpetrators of war crimes to trial, it is clear that the rule of law has prevailed.