Mladić Verdict Highlights Limits of Justice in the Western Balkans

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A woman among the graves of victims of the Srebrenica genocide, at the memorial cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, Tuesday, June 8, 2021.
© 2021 Darko Bandic/AP Photo

Last week, an appeals panel of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) upheld the 2017 genocide conviction of Bosnian Serb wartime military commander Ratko Mladić. Chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz said of Mladić, “His name should be consigned to the list of history’s most depraved and barbarous figures.” Mladić will serve life in prison for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This verdict marks the completion of the Yugoslav tribunal’s mandate to try some of those most responsible for war crimes perpetrated during the 1991-2001 wars in the Balkans. The ruling has special significance for many victims and survivors who sought justice.

But the tribunal’s verdicts have yet to pierce the deep layer of denial and contested narratives of the conflict that persist in the region.

In response to last week’s verdict, Bosnian Serb tripartite presidency member Milorad Dodik called the Srebrenica genocide a myth. Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabićused the decision to blame the court for the growing divisions in the Balkans.

Flags, banners, and murals praising Mladić as a hero were seen in Serbian and Republika Srpska cities such as Trebinje, Banja Luka, Belgrade, and earlier this year in Foča. It doesn’t help that presiding Judge Prisca Matimba Nyambe disagreed with the ruling, despite overwhelming evidence to support it.

Some convicted war criminals have gone to work in public office in the Balkans and run for political positions since their release from custody.

The United Nations Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide has warned of increasing genocide denial in the Balkans.

The last week’s events highlight the need to foster a culture of remembrance, truth, and reconciliation in the Balkans.

For years, civil society groups across the region have advocated for the establishment of a regional truth commission, but leaders in the Balkans have yet to agree.

The specialist chamber for Kosovo has finally started to ramp up its work, but regional cooperation and willingness to extradite those on war crimes charges is lacking.

The conclusion of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is a reminder of the ongoing need for justice, truth, and reconciliation in the Western Balkans. Unless it comes to terms with its past, the region won’t be able to move forward.