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The Crimes of Ratko Mladić

NEW YORK – Ratko Mladić is an easy man to hate. In his prime, he not only talked and behaved like a thug, but he also looked like one – the kind of bull-necked, pale-eyed, snarling psychopath who would gladly pull out your fingernails just for fun. Apart from many other cruelties, the Butcher of Bosnia was responsible, in the summer of 1995, for the killing of around 8,000 unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the woods around Srebrenica.

So it will give most of us a feeling of warm satisfaction that he has finally been arrested in the Serbian village of Lazarevo. Serbia has gained respect by arresting Mladić, which should speed up its membership in the European Union. The former victims of Mladić’s Bosnian Serb forces will feel that some justice is being done at last.

Yet the forthcoming trial of Ratko Mladić raises certain uncomfortable questions. Why, in the first place, can’t he be put on trial in Belgrade, instead of The Hague? And is it really wise to charge him with genocide, as well as crimes against humanity and war crimes?

Both questions reveal how much we still live in the shadow of the Nuremberg Tribunal, where the Nazi leaders were tried by an international judicial panel. It was believed, perhaps correctly, that the Germans would be incapable of trying their own former leaders. And the Nazi crimes had been so horrendous in scale and intent that new laws – “crimes against humanity” – had to be created to try those who had been formally responsible for them. States, too, should be held accountable for their deeds – hence, in 1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.