On June 3, in front of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Ratko Mladic, leader of the Serbian armed forces during the Bosnian War, was indicted at The Hague on two counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity, and four counts of violations of the laws and customs of war.
Mladic emphasized his poor health during his first appearance before the tribunal, raising red flags on whether or not he will survive a lengthy trial. The possibility of Mladic’s death before being tried at the ICTY has led the tribunal’s prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, to consider reducing his charges to ensure quicker and definite convictions. Although his poor health may impede his conviction, Mladic must be charged for all of his war crimes in order to preserve rule of law and build the credibility of the international justice system.
Most human rights lawyers and activists are clear: Impunity for international war crimes is not an option. However, the ICTY’s failure to convict Slobodan Milosevic before his death proved to be a missed opportunity to set significant precedent in international law. Now, when prosecuting Mladic, many speculate that the court could make the same mistake and justice will not be served. Previous indictment drafts include up to 10 counts of crimes against humanity and nine counts of violations of the laws and customs of war, which raised questions within the international legal community. There are many reasons for amending the indictment to its current form, but if the charges are not brought down to a minimum, Mladic will follow in Milosevic’s footsteps.
Regardless of whether Mladic is convicted or dies in the ICTY detainment facilities, justice has been served on a basic level because his freedom has been taken away for the rest of his life. However, there is a larger picture that must be addressed when discussing legal standards, especially with powerful military and government leaders who are accused of heinous crimes against humanity.
The importance of setting precedent in international human rights law is crucial, especially in the current political climate. Though the international justice system can look back on the Nuremberg Trials, the case law surrounding international human rights and war crimes is mostly set by the International Criminal Court and other tribunals that are currently prosecuting alleged criminals from Arusha, Tanzania, to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to The Hague. Giving Mladic a free pass on any of his crimes will set a dangerous precedent of acceptance of atrocious behavior, a message that no justice system can afford to embrace.
The bottom line is that rule of law must be preserved in order to set future precedent. Mladic may be a sick man on his way toward death, but his crimes were heinous; he was the commander of the Serbian army during the siege of Sarajevo and during the Srebrenica massacre. It is not enough to simply convict him quickly and easily for the sake of convicting him. He must face all of his past atrocities and he must answer to the international community.
Nearly 20 years have passed since the beginning of Bosnian War. We have heard the horror stories of mass rape, the shelling of Sarajevo, the failure to protect civilians in Srebrenica. After the Holocaust, the international community sought to develop standards to protect human dignity and hold the perpetrators of war crimes accountable for their actions. Mladic is a war criminal and must therefore face all of his crimes, regardless of health. If he is able to stand trial, then he must be held accountable for the entirety of his actions, not bits and pieces.
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