When former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavšić surrendered to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) last week, foreign media parroted the line that the ICTY was "closing the net" on the high-ranking war crimes suspects still at large in Bosnia. But Plavšić is only the second high-echelon Bosnian Serb suspect to come to The Hague. Five years after the war ended here, many of the indicted are still walking free.
According to UN figures, 27 of the 66 publicly-indicted suspects remain at large. Seventeen of them were indicted for their acts during the 1992-95 Bosnian war (others for the wars in Croatia and Kosovo). The two most-wanted suspects, former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadžić (Plavšić's predecessor) and former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladić, are still at large. The United States government has created and distributed wanted posters for them, offering a reward of USD 5 million for information leading to their arrests. And these are only the public indictments. The ICTY also has a secret indictment list with who knows how many names on it. Biljana Plavšić, for example, had been on that list until her indictment was made public on 10 January.
No tribunal police force
The ICTY's powers to bring in the people accused of war crimes are virtually nil. The court has no police force. Under the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war, its signatories are supposed to co-operate with the ICTY. Unfortunately neither the Croats nor the Serbs in Bosnia have complied. So it's up to the international Stabilisation Force (SFOR) to use its own powers under Dayton to arrest the indicted.
One of SFOR's main jobs is to "promote a climate in which the peace process can continue to move forward." Given that many towns in the Republika Srpska and Croat areas in Bosnia are being governed by the same people who orchestrated ethnic cleansing and its accompanying horrors, it's not surprising that the "capture rate" has been slow. Yet the fact that these indicted criminals are not facing justice is a serious damper to the peace process, and one international watchdog group has stated that SFOR's record in arresting tribunal indictees is not as robust as it should be.
An International Crisis Group report from October 1999 stated that "Both the French and US sectors [of Bosnia] contain large numbers of war criminals, including the Bosnian Serb wartime leader, Radovan Karadžić... Both French and US forces have come under criticism for their unwillingness to arrest war criminals. Both the French and US Armies claim they are unaware of the location of war criminals." The report said that the problem wasn't that the militaries don't know where the criminals are, rather it is a "question of political will in the NATO capitals."
No clear orders
First of all, there are no orders from NATO capitals commanding their troops in Bosnia to arrest war criminals at any cost. Police work is dangerous in any country, never mind in Bosnia where a lot of people have weapons left over from the war and where thugs surround themselves with armed guards. Soldiers could be hurt and killed during these arrests.
"It is very difficult to detain [indictees] and it is not the type of operation that is without risk," explained SFOR spokesperson Susan Gray. She stressed that under Dayton the responsibility to arrest war crimes suspects is that of the signatories, but that given the lack of co-operation, SFOR has stepped in to do arrests.
Potential SFOR casualties are unpalatable to Western governments, especially to the United States, which leads the international troops in Bosnia. After American peacekeepers were killed in Somalia in 1993, the attitude towards putting US soldiers at risk in peacekeeping situations changed. Most Americans would tell you that they don't understand why "their boys" are risking their lives in faraway, hard-to-pronounce towns. Politicians listen to these sentiments.
New President George W Bush has even publicly stated that he doesn't want US soldiers in the Balkans at all. The French have the same problem. They lost more soldiers during the UN peacekeeping in Bosnia than any other country. NATO governments want zero casualties while their troops are keeping the peace in this corner of Europe. But there seems little doubt that there can be no sustainable peace while former war criminals are stopping Dayton from changing the way many parts of the country are government offices and thwarting a healthy market economy with their illegal mafia activities.
"It is certainly and quite clearly an impediment to the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement," Gray said of the fact that numerous indictees are on the loose. She said that many of the war criminals live outside SFOR's area of responsibility and that SFOR can't go everywhere in the world to arrest them. Mladić, for example, is reported to be living in Belgrade. Nevertheless, Gray said SFOR has arrested 21 indicted war criminals since the end of the war.
"We think the record speaks for itself," she said, adding that because of SFOR there are 21 more indictees in The Hague than would have otherwise been detained. But SFOR is far from being the ICTY's de facto police force. "We try to support the ICTY whenever we can in the course of our duties," Gray said. SFOR's website states it has the mandate to arrest the criminals "providing SFOR personnel come into contact with them while carrying out their duties."
Tough when they want to be
But that isn't borne out by the facts: SFOR troops were not so passive when they arrested former Bosnian Serb parliament speaker Momčilo Krajišnik last year. The soldiers burst into Krajišnik's relatives' house in Pale in the pre-dawn hours of 3 April 2000 and emerged with the bushy-eyebrowed suspect in his pajamas. Breaking down someone's door at three in the morning is hardly the same thing as stumbling across a suspect while you're busy doing another task.
The arrest resulted in the ICTY's prosecution of its first "big fish" instead of the low-level thugs it had been prosecuting for years. Krajišnik's arrest was also thought to have been a reason that Biljana Plavšić turned herself in last week—a 70-year-old woman doesn't have much to gain by being dragged out in her pajamas.
The ICG has often recommended that these types of arrests continue. A well-publicised report in November listed 75 individuals throughout the Republika Srpska who, instead of being arrested and taken to The Hague to answer for their activities during the war (which ranged from expelling civilians to executions to mass rape), were enjoying the power and/or wealth that they had gained through those wartime activities. The report recommended that SFOR take a more active role in arresting ICTY indictees.
"I think the report had some sort of media impact and had an impact among policy makers, and I certainly hope the report will shame some people into ordering some of the arrests in Bosnia, which,would be necessary to complete the process of healing after the war" an ICG representative told CER.
The source also said that not arresting these big fish sets a "horrible precedent." It sends a message to other Serb, Croat or Bosniak leaders with dirty hands that they remain unaccountable and can continue political policies that are an extension of ethnic cleansing. It raises them to the status of heroes, and "it makes a mockery of the international community and the idea of international justice." It is hypocrisy if the international community harps on the rule of law to Bosnians and their leaders but then allows the same people who were responsible for ethnic cleansing to ignore the rule of law with impunity.
The real reason?
There is another, more insidious reason, for Karadžić and Mladić's absence in the ICTY. Even if SFOR wasn't anxious about casualties, a Karadžić or Mladić trial could prove to be very embarrassing to Western governments. An April 2000 Atlantic Monthly article by Chuck Sudetic explains, "This is because—despite all the indisputable evidence of atrocities, mass expulsions, and rapes—political and military leaders from the world over climbed the winding road to Pale to negotiate with Karadžić and Mladić throughout the Bosnian war. French, American, and Dutch generals met with them and supped with them and drank toasts to peace with them, and spoke warmly of Serb "hospitality."
General Clark was photographed trading caps with Mladić." A French source told Sudetic that Mladić would be able to call half the French army that served in Bosnia during the war to testify. About Karadžić, the source said, "If he ever comes to trial, he'll say he was in permanent contact with all the countries of the Western world. He'll say he received permanent commitments."
Such a trial would spotlight the manner in which the West was engaged in Bosnia during the war. Let the Bosnian Serbs repeatedly fleece them, rob them, take their soldiers hostage, and continue their expelling and executing and raping even though they'd promised under "negotiations" that all that would stop. For example, Serb leaders promised after the London Conference in August 1992 that they would end the siege of Sarajevo, dismantle their concentration camps and turn over their weapons. They did none of those things—and the war went on for another three years.
The West's arsenal in the fight against the Bosnian Serbs consisted of negotiations and secret deals, which if came to light in the ICTY, would not
No matter how politically expedient it is for governments to ignore the fact that indicted war criminals remain powerful and free in Bosnia, the country cannot recover from the war while the very people that were responsible for the atrocities remain immune. These criminals undermine the peace created by the Dayton agreement and the USD 5 billion the international community has spent to sustain it. If they are not arrested and brought to trial, Bosnia has no hope of reconciliation or becoming a viable European state—two things that would be essential before the international community can even think about pulling out of the country.
Beth Kampschror, 22 January 2001
Also of interest:
- It Isn't Easy Being Biljana by Pat FitzPatrick
- Archived articles about Bosnia in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page