Genocide Conviction And Life Sentence Upheld Against Former Bosnian Serb Military Chief

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia upheld its genocide conviction and life sentence against former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladić on 8 June. This followed the defense and prosecutor’s appeal of the original 2017 ruling, which found Mladić guilty of 10 charges. The long-awaited outcome finalizes 25 years of trials at the ad hoc Tribunal and confirms Mladić’s pivotal role in the atrocities of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. Lawyers for Mladić argued after the 2017 ruling that the former military general should not be held responsible for his subordinates’ actions, seeking an acquittal or retrial, but were struck down unanimously. 

The United Nations (UN) backed international trial in The Hague, which lasted 530 days across more than four years, has been regarded as the most significant war crimes case in Europe since the Nuremberg Trials following World War II. Ratko Mladić, known as the “butcher of Bosnia,” led the July 1995 seizure of the UN-protected ‘safe zone’ of Srebrenica, where his troops executed over 8,000 Muslim men and boys and disposed of their bodies in mass graves. For Sarajevo siege survivors and loved ones of those murdered, the verdict brought a form of closure. As the original verdicts were delivered in 2017, Judge Alphons Orie said that Mladić’s crimes “ranked among the most heinous known to humankind and include genocide and extermination,” according to The Guardian. From 1992 to 1995, Bosnian Serb forces, backed by the Yugoslav army, cut off Sarajevo’s electricity and water and killed around 11,000 people with artillery, mortar, tank, and sniper fire from the surrounding hills. 

After the genocide conviction and life sentence were upheld on 8 June, the White House praised the UN tribunals for bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice. In a White House press statement, United States President Joe Biden said “this historic judgment shows that those who commit horrific crimes will be held accountable. It also reinforces our shared resolve to preventing future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world.” The statement concluded that “[J]ustice and reconciliation are the foundation for peace and stability for the future, and today’s decision is also an important confirmation that this is possible.” 

The majority of Mladić’s guilty counts came from his actions in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. However, some survivors and families of victims have pushed for wider recognition of the murder and expulsion of non-Serbs from the Prijedor area in 1992, a campaign aimed at carving out a Greater Serbia early in the war. Accounts from inside the detention camps in the Prijedor area highlight unimaginably cruel conditions and treatment. After the 2017 conviction dismissed one count of genocide, prosecutors pushed for more of the same charges to include Mladić’s actions in six municipalities early in the war. However, UN war crimes judges dismissed this appeal, as the verdict found that Mladić’s ethnic cleansing campaign amounted to persecution, but not genocide. 

The denial of this appeal highlights limitations in the legal process, which must be reconciled with the trauma and loss experienced by the families of those killed throughout the war. Many Serbs today continue to regard Mladić as their defender and hero, and consider the war crimes court to be “biased against Serbs,” according to Reuters. In days preceding the 8 June verdict, Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik, the current chair of Bosnia’s tripartite inter-ethnic presidency, said Mladić was “a warrior, not a criminal.” For Bosnian survivors and families of victims, Serb genocide denial persists as a major obstruction of full justice—Dodik continues to use language about the “myth of genocide” in Srebrenica. For reconciliation to occur and peace in the Balkans to prevail, horrors of the war’s early years must be illuminated. The ad hoc tribunal in Yugoslavia, one of the major predecessors of the International Criminal Court, failed to bring justice to all families, many of whom are still reeling from the trauma of the war. Justice cannot be served by denial.