Karadzic and Mladic

Serbian Leaders Reunite For First Time at War Crimes Trial

Nearly two full decades since they last met (at least, officially) Radovan Karadzic and Radko Mladic were reunited during a court hearing at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Mr. Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb political leader, is accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war. As a senior leader of the Serbs in Bosnia, he is accused of playing a critical role in masterminding the extermination of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, including the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered. Mr. Mladic was the Bosnian Serb army chief during the war, and faces his own ICTY trial on charges similar to Mr. Karadzic.

Mr. Mladic had been called as a defense witness for Mr. Karadzic, who was trying to prove that he was not the mastermind behind massacres and did not give specific orders to exterminate non-Serbs. However, when Mr. Karadzic began asking him questions, Mr. Mladic refused to answer. After delaying the proceedings by requesting his dentures, Mr. Mladic declared that he wouldn’t answer any questions, saying “I refuse to testify on the grounds of my health and because it may prejudice my rights as an accused.” He went on to call the ICTY a “satanic” court, and that he didn’t recognize it.

These two key political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs – who are both sometimes nicknamed “The Butcher of Bosnia” – are part of a small group of individuals who are considered to have direct responsibility for the atrocities that took place in Bosnia in the 90s. When Slobodan Milosevic died in a jail cell in 2006 without ever being convicted for his crimes, there was a sense that full justice could not be reached for the victims of the conflict, and that Milosevic himself had “escaped justice“. When ringleaders of the conflict like Mladic make a mockery of the court by calling it “satanic” and refusing to answer questions, it undermines the ICTY’s capacity to deliver on its promise of accountability for crimes and ending impunity.

That Mr. Mladic doesn’t recognize the authority of the court and refused to testify is unfortunate and “adds salt to the wound” of the victims. The ICTY’s legitimacy is challenged by such acts, which is precisely the goal behind Mr. Mladic’s appearance in court yesterday. His openly defiant attitude will not, however, overshadow the ICTY’s ongoing work and accomplishments. It laid the foundation for the development of the – permanent – International Criminal Court, and has set important precedents with guilty verdicts for individuals held responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity. With 161 indictments, and 73 guilty verdicts thus far, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has been blazing trails for international criminal responsibility since its establishment in 1993.

Photo credit: Radovan Karadzic (L) and Radko Mladic (R). From The Advocacy Project’s photo stream  on Flickr.