Thursday, May 26, 2011

First thoughts about the arrest of Ratko Mladic

The arrest of indicted Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic is a watershed moment in the region. But there are significant perils in it as well, and perhaps not where one might expect to find them.

First, it is a long overdue triumph for justice. The massacre at Srebrenica is a scar on Europe. During and after his trial, justice and closure will now be available to thousands who suffered by the atrocities and war crimes that he allegedly directed.

Second, the arrest is a triumph of patient diplomacy. Too patient, yes, and certainly encumbered by the obstruction and outright hostility of powerful figures within and without Serbian government. But the arrest came without violence and without a circus and with the clear intention of bringing Mladic to international justice. That is a winning combination.

Third, it is a triumph for the forces that want to weave Serbia into the larger European community. The arrest of Mladic was the last real hurdle to Serbian accession to European institutions -- and smart European politicians will rush to exploit the suddenly open path for Serbian accession to the European Union as quickly as possible. The establishment of European rights and European norms may not "solve" problems such as Bosnia and Kosovo overnight, but they will nudge the parties to serious negotiations and compromises with the safety net of the EU's charters on human and cultural rights.

So what can go wrong?

Yes there is the the potential for right-wing nationalist violence in Serbia. One imagines that the Serbian government is prepared for this and will meet such a challenge strongly. But the potential for a long hot summer in Serbia is a short term hit for the extraordinary long term advances now open to the country.

The greatest potential for mayhem actually comes from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. (ICTY). The trials there have been dilatory and fraught with all sorts of controversies. The trial of ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj has been a collaborative farce between the indicted party -- who bears the bulk of the responsibility for it --and the prosecution and the court.

I even read this morning in early coverage that there is a proposition brewing that prosecutors might stop the trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and try Mladic and Kradazic together.

This would be both a procedural circus and an huge error. If it is possible, the ICTY should appoint a distinguished non-European (and non-Canadian or American) judge to oversee the trial. The trial should be fair, transparent (so that it can be seen to be fair), and conducted with all dispatch. The prosecution should also eschew it its hamfisted attempts to gin up media coverage for the trial by unnecessarily calling journalists and celebrities to give evidence. The evidence of Srebrenica is there already -- dug out of painstaking exhumations and research into the massacre. The trial will receive intense media attention without a Naomi Campbell-like appearance.

The speedy, fair, professional and transparent trial of Ratko Mladic is the expressway to healing the Balkans. Now that Serbia has belatedly done its part, the ICTY must search its own failings and missteps thus far, regroup, and ensure that it is not a further hurdle to peace and justice in the region. The world is watching.

(Belgrade, 2007, photo by Andrej_Filev; shared with attribution from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

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