Judging by the mixed reactions to the life sentence the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has handed Ratko Mladić, the former Bosnian Serb Army commander, reconciliation in the region after the wars of the 1990s is still far away.
Mladić, whom the ICTY found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment, is still a hero, martyr and victim to some in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and the biggest criminal, executioner and murderer of Srebrenica to others.
The Hague tribunal was founded almost a quarter of a century ago by a UN Security Council resolution as an ad hoc court tasked with punishing criminals and contributing to reconciliation in the region. Where the punishing of crimes is concerned, the tribunal has largely completed its task.
However, reconciliation has not gone very far, partly because the Serbs believe themselves to be victims of the tribunal, as the biggest number of Serbs have been convicted and handed the highest sentences, whereas the indictees of other nationalities either received lighter sentences or were acquitted.
Mladić’s sentencing did not come as a surprise to the authorities in Belgrade but both President Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić focused their comments on stressing the need to leave the past behind and turn to the future.
“Serbia respects others’ victims and expects others to do the same, but we will have to get respect for our victims on our own,” Vučić said on 22 November in Novi Sad.
At one point in the previous decade, Vučić had led a group of activists of the Serbian Radical Party, of which he was a member, in sticking posters with the inscription ‘Ratko Mladić Boulevard’ over the street signs reading Zoran Đinđić Boulevard, after the assassinated Serbian prime minister.
The pro-Europe opposition parties and the non-governmental sector welcomed the verdict as expected and just, and the sentence handed as appropriate. According to them, this is not a conviction of Serbia and the Serbian people, but rather one of Mladić personally.
Representatives of the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights said Mladić’s sentencing should not be a cause for celebration anywhere in the Western Balkans.
“The verdict should be used as an opportunity for everyone to think about how such wars could have happened in the 1990s,” the Committee director Milan Antonijević told Beta News Agency.
The war crimes proceedings before the ICTY have not reconciled Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Muslims, Croats and Serbs, now organised in two entities: the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) and the Muslim-Croat Federation.
Thus for Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, Mladić is “a historic hero and patriot,” who “defended the Serbian people in impossible conditions and prevented a new genocide against the Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia”.
Serb member of Bosnia’s three-member Presidency, Mladen Ivanić, said that by announcing the verdict to the former Republika Srpska military commander the ICTY had demonstrated that it carried on with a negative attitude toward the Serbs and would “be remembered for handing not justice but politics.”
Croatia, which, like Slovenia became a member of the EU after the armed conflicts of the 1990s, was not exactly satisfied with the verdict the Mladić case either. The Croatian government said in a press release that it considered the first-instance verdict appropriate, but was not happy that it had not determined the involvement of top Serbian officials in “an extensive joint criminal enterprise”.
Another grievance from Zagreb was that Mladić’s indictment did not address the crimes committed in Croatia, where he had been stationed before moving to Bosnia.
Right now, it seems as though the only ones who agree on the work of the ICTY are the region’s historians. They say that the tribunal has helped determine historical facts about the wars and crimes and that thanks to its work they will have an abundance of material which they would otherwise have never obtained.
After the Hague tribunal stops working in mid-December, the unfinished cases will be taken over by the United Nations Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, while the other war crimes cases will be handled by local judiciaries.
Europe talks about reconciliation more than the region does
And while everyone across the region is interpreting Mladić’s sentencing from their own perspective, Europe seems to be the one talking about reconciliation the most.
After the verdict was read, the European Commission said it believed all the countries in the region were determined and dedicated to reconciliation, regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations and called on all political leaders in the region to respect the victims by making an effort and respecting those obligations.
The EU does not comment on individual verdicts so a press release said only the EU fully respects the decisions of the tribunal, supports its work and strongly underlines the need for full cooperation with the Tribunal, as well as with its successor, the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals.
The importance of the ICTY’s conviction of Mladić for reconciliation in the region was also stressed by Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, who tweeted that the verdict was another big step in the fight against impunity and was important in addressing the wars of the 1990s and reconciliation in the region.
Meanwhile, ICTY Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz welcomed the lifetime imprisonment for Mladić but stressed that it was a conviction of the Serbian people.
Brammertz pointed out that the work on prosecuting war crimes would not be done with the closing of the tribunal, because the survivors from all communities were waiting for justice, as were the families who still did not know the fate of their loved ones.
The chief prosecutor also left open the possibility of appealing the part of the verdict that had acquitted Mladić on counts of genocide in six Bosnia and Herzegovina municipalities.
Former convict teaches at the military academy
An illustration of how the ICTY and regional reconciliation are perceived in Belgrade may also be the fact that some former convicts are becoming increasingly present in Serbia’s public life.
Vladimir Lazarević, former commander of the Priština Corps and Third Army of the Yugoslav Armed Forces, sentenced by the ICTY for command responsibility for war crimes in Kosovo, gave a lecture at the Military Academy in Belgrade in late October.
Veselin Šljivančanin, convicted of war crimes in Vukovar, Croatia, takes part in forums and appears on TV shows to promote his book and spread his “truth.”
And while a portion of the public protest, the government responds by saying they have served their sentences, they are free men now and today’s military school students can learn much about war strategy from the former Yugoslav army commanders.
The most vocal defender of the convicted war criminals is Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin, who says Serbia should not be ashamed of those who defended it because they are “the bravest of the brave.”
Also active in public, even in the Serbian parliament, is Vojislav Šešelj. After almost 12 years spent in detention of the Hague tribunal, he was first temporarily released due to poor health and then handed a first-instance acquittal.