Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić has been sentenced to 40 years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
The court found the former president of the Bosnian Serb republic guilty of one count of genocide and nine war crimes, all relating to the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. He is criminally responsible for the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.
This marks the final chapter in three interlinked stories of hubris, war and retribution in Europe at the turn of the millennium.
The first of these stories is a personal journey of an ambitious intellectual – a psychiatrist and a poet who rose from poverty and obscurity to eventually join the political elite. It’s the story of a man who went on to lead a nationalist movement responsible for some of the most heinous crimes seen on the continent since 1945.
Karadžić held political authority over the Bosnian Serb forces that perpetrated the crimes for which he was charged by the ICTY. Ousted from power after the conclusion of the Dayton Peace Agreement, he remained a fugitive until 2008. He was found living on the outskirts of Belgrade disguised as a new-age healer. It’s a tale that could have been taken from a Yugoslav surrealist film.
He will undoubtedly spend the remainder of his life in prison – an apt ending to this extraordinary trajectory.
The intriguing question that remains is how an apparently tolerant and convivial man, who worked and associated with Bosnians of different religious backgrounds and exhibited no particular nationalist leanings prior to 1990, became a ruthless political ideologue who oversaw a policy of mass murder, torture, rape and the forced removal of non-Serb populations for the sake of creating an “ethnically cleansed” Serbian state in Bosnia.
A new kind of justice
The second story is that of the international tribunal itself. Set up by the UN in 1993 to investigate the war crimes that took place in the Balkans in the 1990s, the ICTY has undergone several metamorphoses over its 20-year existence.
The tribunal began as an ineffectual and underfunded institution. It was unable to press Western governments into capturing the more important war criminals. But from 2001 it went on to score some remarkable successes. All its indictees were eventually arrested, including the big fish, such as Serbia’s former president Slobodan Milošević and the Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Karadžić and Ratko Mladić (who is currently on trial).
This success was due largely to new governments coming to power in the post-Yugoslav states and the West’s policy of making financial aid and accession to the EU conditional on co-operation with the tribunal.
The ICTY has provided impressive evidence of the worst crimes committed in the Yugoslav wars. It identified those involved and charted the chains of command. It set some important milestones in international law, paving the way to the creation of a permanent International Criminal Court. Without the ICTY, it is unlikely that some of the worst perpetrators in the Yugoslav wars would have been brought to justice or that we would have such detailed knowledge about the conduct of those wars.
However, the tribunal has been very controversial in the region. It has ultimately made little headway in its mission of contributing to reconciliation.
Nationalist politicians have sought to portray the ICTY as victimising their individual national groups. They present the indictments of their own former political or military leaders as disproportionate and unjust.
The tribunal has remained insular and remote from the region, making little attempt to explain its indictments, procedures and judgements to the war-ravaged and traumatised populations for which it was meant to provide justice.
Often relatively short sentences issued for capital crimes have rankled with victims and some of those tried by the tribunal have now returned home and were welcomed as war heroes.
The acquittals of high ranking military and security figures from Croatia and Serbia in 2012 and 2013 produced consternation even among the greatest champions of the tribunal. Even some ICTY judges publicly protested.
An international journey
The Karadžić judgment (along with those pending for Mladić and a few others) also marks the end of a third story – that of external involvement in the region’s reckoning with its legacy of war.
Without international intervention, there would probably have been little justice. However, the actions of external actors sometimes had counterproductive effects, undermining the reformist political forces seeking genuine change in their countries. And, ultimately, real reckoning with a difficult past cannot be orchestrated from outside.
If the Karadžić judgment is to have any longer-term resonance in the region, it will need to be part of a sustained internal and introspective process in those states where the crimes were perpetrated.
That usually implies the presence of both genuine political commitment and a propitious socio-economic context. Unfortunately, neither of these conditions are on the horizon yet anywhere in the region.