BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: A Decade After Srebrenica

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: A Decade After Srebrenica

July 7, 2005 8:14 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:

Bosnia and Herzegovina

International Law

This publication is now archived.

What’s the status of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)?

The ICTY was established in 1993 by the U.N. Security Council to bring to justice those responsible for war crimes in the Balkans after 1991, when the former Yugoslavia began to disintegrate. The tribunal has so far indicted 162 individuals, the majority of them ethnic Serbs, ranging in importance from high-ranking political figures to lowly field generals. Around 80 suspects are currently either in custody or awaiting trial; 10 remain at large. Some experts say Balkan governments may feel additional pressure to hand over the remaining fugitives in the coming weeks as Europe commemorates the tenth anniversary of the July 11, 1995, massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men in the Bosnian village of Srebrenica. The two Bosnian Serbs most responsible for the Srebrenica genocide, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, remain at large.

What’s impeding the court’s progress to arrest these fugitives?

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and other political leaders in the region have failed to cooperate with the ICTY’s order to arrest the most wanted war-crime suspects, experts say. Some of these leaders fear a political backlash, given the reputation of Mladic and Karadzic as war heroes among many Serbs. Others refuse to recognize the ICTY’s legitimacy. "Many of them see the court as a political instrument of the West, and consequently don’t see it as a clear-cut case of complying with justice," says William L. Nash, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action. On the other hand, experts also say it’s unclear if the governments in the region know where these fugitives are hiding.

Why is the Srebrenica anniversary important?

The Srebrenica massacre is considered by many to be the worst human-rights atrocity committed on European soil since World War II. U.N. officials say the massacre also marked a low point for the international body’s ability to protect civilians in the former Yugoslavia, as the Muslim enclave in the mountainous part of eastern Bosnia was a U.N.-declared "safe area," supposedly protected by Dutch peacekeepers, when it was overrun by Bosnian-Serb forces. Carla Del Ponte, the ICTY’s chief prosecutor, said she would boycott the commemoration ceremonies if Mladic and Karadzic were not arrested. Serbian President Boris Tadic, despite protests by Bosnian Muslims, has said he will attend the July 11 commemoration.

Why were Bosnian Muslims targeted at Srebrenica?

Experts say the motivations for the massacre are still unclear. The Bosnian war erupted in 1992 when Serbia, which is primarily Serbian Orthodox, attempted to prevent Bosnia, which is predominately Muslim, from declaring independence and breaking away as an independent state. Some say the slaughter at Srebrenica in the waning months of the war was part of Karadzic’s "endgame" strategy to secure the last remaining Muslim enclaves in the region. Others point to a television interview Mladic gave around the time of the massacre in which he said the slaughter at Srebrenica was to exact revenge on the town’s Muslims for killing ethnic Serbs during a revolt 150 years earlier. (The Bosnian war ended in November 1995 with the signing of the U.S.-brokered Dayton Accords.)

What has been the reaction in Serbia to the Srebrenica massacre?

Ten years on, many Serbs have not come to terms with the events of Srebrenica, or believe the bloodshed was overblown by the media, says Kelly Askin, a senior legal officer for the Open Society Institute. However, she says, there was shock after video footage--found by the Humanitarian Law Fund, a Belgrade-based human-rights group, and aired on Serbian television June 2--showed six Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica killed execution-style by a Serbian paramilitary unit called the Scorpions. Other videos showing similar atrocities are believed to exist, experts say. "As a result of the video, more people understand that something terrible happened, that this wasn’t something made up by the international community," says Janusz Bugajski, a Balkans expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It’s created lots of discussion on the subject: the role of Belgrade, the role of the [Serbian Orthodox] church. But I still don’t see this as creating a sea-change in public opinion."

Although Kostunica issued a recent statement acknowledging Serbia’s role in the "massive crime," in late June, Serbia’s parliament failed to pass a resolution condemning the massacre. Some say the resolution may have failed because it would adversely affect an ongoing suit filed by the Bosnian government in the International Court of Justice against Belgrade alleging its use of genocide during the war.

Who are the ICTY’s most wanted fugitives?

Among the 10 war-crimes suspects still at large, three have a $5 million bounty on their heads from the U.S. government. They are:

  • Ratko Mladic. A military general and avowed communist, Mladic, 62, remains a war hero to many Bosnian Serbs. He is considered by many the most wanted war-crimes fugitive of the 1993-95 Bosnian war for his role in the Srebrenica slaughter. Mladic is rumored to be ill, perhaps suicidal, and negotiating for a conditional surrender. Serbia’s government says it does not know his whereabouts, although recent news reports suggest he has been offered safe haven by the Serbian army on military bases. Mladic is wanted by the ICTY on 15 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violating the laws and customs of war.
  • Radovan Karadzic. A close confidante of Slobodan Milosevic, Karadzic is the former ultranationalist president of Republica Srpska, the Bosnian-Serb enclave, and is believed to be hiding in the desolate mountains of northwest Montenegro. A poet and psychiatrist, Karadzic, 60, was indicted by the ICTY in 1995 on 11 counts of ethnic cleansing--that is, the forced expulsion of an ethnic group from a given area--genocide, and other crimes against humanity, including the Srebrenica massacre, the three-year siege of Sarajevo in which some 10,000 civilians were killed, and the expulsion of more than 30,000 Muslims from a U.N. "safe area."
  • Ante Gotovina. A former Croatian war general, Gotovina is The Hague’s third-most wanted man. He stands accused of killing around 150 Serbian civilians during the 1991-95 Serb-Croatian war, which erupted after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Around 150,000 Serbs were expelled on his order from disputed territory during this time. A war hero among many Croats, Gotovina is rumored to be residing in Croatia, despite denials by the government. In March, the European Union postponed accession negotiations with Croatia because of its inability to apprehend Gotovina. In 2001, he was charged by the ICTY with nine counts of crimes against humanity.

What is the likelihood that any of these three will be arrested soon?

Momentum appears to be in the ICTY’s favor, experts say. A June 17 poll by the Belgrade-based Strategic Marketing and Media Research Institute shows for the first time that more Serbs are in favor of arresting Mladic than letting him go free. Serbia is also increasingly bowing to pressure from the United States and European Union to cooperate with the war tribunal, experts say. So far this year, Serbia has surrendered 14 war-crimes suspects, six of whom were involved with the Srebrenica massacre.

What leverage does the ICTY have to pressure governments to comply?

"It has the bully pulpit," Nash says, including the authority to issue arrest warrants. But although its rulings are binding under international law, the tribunal has no police force or power to carry out these arrests. Instead its judges must rely on individual governments to enforce their rulings. The trouble is, as Nash points out, "It’s naive to think they can force a sovereign government to do something it doesn’t want to do." Another recourse the court has to enforce compliance is to put pressure on U.N. Security Council members to issue sanctions, freeze assets, or withhold aid.

How are other countries assisting the ICTY?

In January, the United States denied reconstruction aid to Serbia for its failure to cooperate with the ICTY, a move later reversed once Belgrade complied with the court and handed over several suspects. The European Union has said accession talks for Serbia and Montenegro, pushing to be on track for EU membership by 2012, are on hold until Mladic, Karadzic, and others are arrested. "What Serbs know is that unless they turn him over, Mladic will be an albatross around their neck that prevents them from joining NATO’s [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] Partnership for Peace and destroys any hopes of them joining the European Union," says Edgar Chen, legal liaison for the Coalition for International Justice.

What happens if Mladic and Karadzic are not apprehended?

The ICTY is set to expire in 2008, but experts say the chief prosecutor may ask the U.N. Security Council for a two- to three-year extension. Some say Mladic and Karadzic are trying to wait out the ICTY’s expiration date to avoid arrest. Del Ponte, however, has said she will not dissolve the court until these two men have been arrested. The U.N. Security Council has pressured the ICTY to wrap up its work, given its $100 million annual price tag--around $20 million of which is supplied by the United States.

-- by Lionel Beehner, staff writer,

More on:

Bosnia and Herzegovina

International Law


Top Stories on CFR

Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: Republicans are gathering in Milwaukee next week optimistic about their chances in November.  


The surprising shift to the left in snap elections has broken the far-right populist fever in France, but now a crisis of governability looms in Paris that has further weakened President Emmanuel Macron’s grip on power.


President-Elect Masoud Pezeshkian campaigned as a moderate regarding issues such as the hijab law and nuclear negotiations, but the regime is unlikely to allow any sweeping changes.