What’s In a Genocide Verdict?

Photo: UNICTY

On Holy Thursday, the seven years long prosecution against Bosnian-Serb war criminal Radovan Karadžić reached its end. As former leader of Republika Srpska – the Serb-dominated territory within Bosnia and Herzegovina – Karadžić was recognized as the mastermind behind many of the exceptional brutalities that characterized the 1992-95 war.   

International organizations were quick to welcome the ruling of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.  “This judgment confirms Radovan Karadžić’s command responsibility for the most serious crimes under international law carried out on European soil since the Second World War,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia.

Found guilty of ten counts out of eleven, 70-year old Karadžić was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment. While global headlines proclaimed a long-awaited justice for survivors of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the very same survivors said: too little, too late. The disappointment was unmistakable outside UN Tribunal in Hague, where surviving victims  had gathered to await the verdict.

Karadžić, nicknamed “the Butcher of Bosnia”, was convicted responsibility for the infamous four-year siege of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital Sarajevo, for taking UN peacekeepers hostage and for the persecution and extermination of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats in twenty municipalities across the country.

Among other crimes against humanity, he was found guilty of orchestrating the Srebrenica genocide, where close to 8,000 Bosniak boys and men had been systematically executed during four mid-July days in 1995.  Survivors of exterminations in seven other municipalities however felt neglected – the intent of genocide could not be determined and Karadžić was acquitted of charge.

All war crimes in question were committed more than two decades ago. After staying  in post-war Republika Srpska for two years, Karadžić realised the threat of international justice in 1997.  His extraordinary version of hiding included moving to Belgrade and taking new identity as a novelist – his semi-autobiography “The Miraculous Chronicle of the Night” became short-listed for Serbia’s top literary award. A couple of years later, he would grow a beard, move to the apartment across an Interpol agent, and market himself as a New Age healer on his new website. Despite being on the Hague most-wanted list, his costume was so good that he managed to purse his new career as minor celebrity for twelve years without anybody turning him in.

Karadžić was finally captured in 2009 on orders from Serbia’s new, pro-European government. Adding seven years of trial in the Hague, over 20 years have elapsed since he was initially indicted – in all likelihood many more years than he will last in prison. Undercover Karadžić managed to outlive many of the people who survived the brutalities he arranged. To the remaining victims, his late imprisonment is a mockery.

As the UN Tribunal’s highest-level suspect has been convicted, we might be tempted to regard the Holy Thursday as a closing chapter for transitional justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Specifically, some experts believe it to be a final tick off the list that allows the country to focus on political reform and EU integration. 

Unfortunately, reconciliation does not work that way in the Western Balkans. As much as “facing the past” is important, it is equally destructive.

Last year’s twentieth commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide demonstrated that remembrance fosters resentment. With Russia vetoing the Security Council’s resolution condemning the Srebrenica genocide, and Bosniak war suspect Naser Orić being detained on a Serbian warrant just before, the funeral and commemoration in Srebrenica on July 15 resembled a hooligan clash more than anything else.  Hate crimes with ethnical premeditation increased dramatically across Bosnia and Herzegovina that summer.

Following from this, there is little support to the idea that the verdict will signal anything constructive domestically. In international law, it might set a precedent for criminal responsibility of political leaders. But in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there exists no group of people that has awaited the verdict to make their minds up about Karadžić. While many were frustrated that major atrocities still are not recognized as genocide, those who previously refused to acknowledge the criminal nature of Karadžić’s leadership are defending him louder than ever. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, no-one is satisfied.

Only the other day, a new student dormitory in Pale – the very town from where Karadžić commanded sniper strikes against the Sarajevo population – was dedicated in his honour. In Belgrade, thousands of members of Serbian Radical Party took the streets to show Karadžić their support.  As part of the alleged anti-Serb bias in the UN courts, post-war President of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik rejects the verdict as a product of “political pressures”. Commentary fields on the ethnically divided media outlets are too disturbing to even look at. As much as the verdict will force international society to learn about the wartime events in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it will also familiarize them with the crudeness of post-war Balkan politics.

Bosnian society will remain deeply divided in its narratives of the 1992-95 occurrences, and the verdict against Karadžić will by no means bring justice or stability to the country. Even more certainly, Karadžić’s sentencing will not make a positive contribution to the relationship between Republika Srpska and the Bosniak and Croat-dominated territory. As appeals to this first-instance verdict are yet to be made, it can only get worse.

Internationally, Karadžić might go to the textbook as the initiator of Europe’s “other genocide”. Hopefully, his verdict will signal accountability to other political leaders of the world. But other than that, it shares the same features as the other international interventions in the Bosnia and Herzegovina war – it’s too little, too late.

By Aida Zekić