Politicians are not known for their powers of self-reflection, but there should be a lot of uncomfortable glances in the mirror this morning in western capitals as General Mladic makes his way through the Serbian justice system to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague.
Mladic was arrested in the early hours of Thursday, hiding in a farmhouse in Voivodina, northern Serbia. The world’s most wanted indicted war criminal had been on the run for 16 years, since he was charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. As the commander of the Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb army in the early 1990s, Mladic is accused of being a key member of the “joint criminal enterprise” that oversaw a campaign of ethnic cleansing, massacres and atrocities, the like of which had not been seen in Europe since the Second World War.
In particular, he is charged with being the mastermind of the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, when troops under his command massacred up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys after the fall of the UN-declared “Safe Area”.
Mladic is likely to be extradited to The Hague within a week or so and quickly take the stand for his initial appearance. Serge Brammertz, the ICTY prosecutor, praised the work of the Serbian authorities in apprehending the fugitive warlord. “Today is an important day for international justice. People responsible for grave violations of international humanitarian law can no longer count on impunity.”
Yet, like his political patron, Slobodan Milosevic, General Mladic for years enjoyed impunity as he was wooed by a stream of western negotiators and UN officials, who saw him as the lynchpin of any future peace deal – even though the war crimes carried out by his forces had been extensively documented by human rights organisations and the world’s media. Only yesterday, Lord Owen, the British former EU negotiator for Yugoslavia, told the BBC how he had spent many hours negotiating with Mladic trying to persuade him to sign up for a peace deal. General Mladic ran rings around his interlocutors, sensing the West’s weakness and near complete lack of political will to take any meaningful action to stop the Bosnian Serb onslaught.
Never more than during the fall of Srebrenica when the sum total of Nato’s response was two bombs dropped. As a military man, General Mladic understood force best of all. When in the summer of 1995 Nato finally bombed the Bosnian Serbs and broke the siege of Sarajevo the war ended soon after. Had General Mladic been arrested, instead of courted, in the early years of the war, many more people would likely still be alive. And numerous former politicians, diplomats and statesmen might better be able to look themselves in the eye.