Mladić's life sentence upheld

Former Bosnian Serb military general has conviction for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes upheld.

Radko Mladić, former leader of the Bosnian Serb military forces, has had his appeal rejected and his life sentence upheld by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. 

Convinced of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in 2017, Mladić had spent 16 years on the run, following the end of the Bosnian War in the mid-1990s.

The Bosnian War (1992-1995)

In the 1980s, following the death of one of the most complex leaders Europe has ever seen – Josip Broz Tito – there was a steep rise in nationalism in what was then Yugoslavia. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Balkans had become a hotbed for violence. Croatia, Slovakia and Bosnia all declared independence in the early 1990s and by the spring of 1992, Bosnian Serbs nationalist forces, supported by paramilitaries and the Yugoslav military, began an ethnic cleansing campaign, targeting all non-Serbians living in Bosnia.

Throughout this campaign, the Bosnian Serbs engaged in horrific tactics that citizens of this continent had hoped were gone for good. Forced evictions, concentration camps, torture and rape were all commonplace as Bosnian Serb acted with impunity, galvanised by their leaders, including Mladić, who would be convicted of genocide for his role in the Srebrenica massacre.

Srebrenica

In response to the ethnic cleansing operation, the UN eventually sent a few hundred peacekeepers and established a resolution that declared Srebrenica and its immediate surroundings a safe haven that should remain "free from any armed attack or any other hostile acts."

As you may have guessed by now, this resolution was not respected.

Fast-forwarding to 1995, these same EU peacekeepers were awaiting backup from NATO, when Bosnian Serb forces began shelling the town, causing tens of thousands of civilians to flee to another UN base in nearby Potočari. Srebrenica was captured and the Bosnian Serb forces advanced to Potočari, capturing civilians and rounding up all the male Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) vicinity.

Beginning on the 14th of July 1995, somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 Muslim were executed and piled into mass graves in what remains the biggest massacre Europe has seen since the Holocaust.

Mladić’s role

In his capacity as a military leader, Mladić oversaw the implementation of several campaigns, amongst them the massacre at Srebrenica. His conviction for genocide – which is the act of wholly or partially destroying a people, usually an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group – relating to the atrocities at Srebrenica, is the only European genocide recognised by two international criminal courts. 

Mladić was also convicted of war crimes – serious offences that breach the Geneva Conventions, which are treaties that set out the rules for war– and crimes against humanity, which are offences committed as part of a large scale, systemic policy. Two sets of offences that are often mistakenly used interchangeably, there are important differences to note. Put simply, war crimes are wartime aggressions that go beyond proportionality and military necessity, often committed by soldiers, whereas crimes against humanity are usually committed by higher-ups, done so for the purpose of furthering the state’s agenda.

What the verdict means

In Bosnia, the wounds from Mladić’s atrocities are still fresh. Recent estimates suggest that the conflict caused some 100,000 deaths and has led to the forced migration of up to two million refugees. Regardless of exact figures, the massacre at Srebrenica will live long in the collective memory of a nation that has dealt time and again with internal conflict over the years. 

While Mladić is seen – and will go down in history – as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, he is still a lauded figure in parts of his homeland. To many nationalist Bosnian Serbs, he is a national hero who was hell-bent on purifying the country. 

Needing a mandate from the President of Yugoslavia, the failed Truth and Reconciliation Commission was forced to end prematurely when Yugoslavia officially dissolved. Establishing a similar commission would be a welcome move and could go some way to helping the people of the former Yugoslavia understand, if not forgive, exactly what happened during the conflicts.

With or without further investigations, those affected by the barbaric crimes of the 1990s will no doubt welcome the verdict, hoping that it is the final chapter in what has undoubtedly been the toughest period in any of their lives.