‘Butcher of Bosnia’ convicted of genocide

Warlord: The judge said his crimes “rank among the most heinous known to humankind”. © Alamy

Does international criminal law work? The vicious Serbian commander Ratko Mladic has been given a life sentence by a war crimes tribunal. But not everyone is satisfied.

One summer morning in 1995, Ratko Mladic was handing out sweets to Bosnian children in the main square of the town of Srebrenica. Later that day, the shooting began.

Mladic's Serbian troops rounded up all the Bosnian men and boys they could find. The prisoners were driven out of town, lined up and shot. The bodies, some not quite dead, were dumped in mass graves. Mladic stood by and watched.

Over two decades later, a kind of justice has been served. On Wednesday, the man known as the “butcher of Bosnia” was sentenced to life imprisonment for the crimes he committed in the Yugoslav Wars.

As a top Serbian military commander, Mladic was responsible for some of that gruelling conflict’s grisliest episodes. In the Srebrenica massacre, Serbs killed more than 8,000 Bosnians — their mortal enemies. Mladic also directed the four-year siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital.

After the war’s end, Mladic spent almost 16 years as a fugitive. In 2011, he was delivered to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Six years on, the court has convicted him of various war crimes, including genocide. As the verdict was read out, Mladic shouted: “This is all lies.”

The ICTY was set up in 1993. Since then, it has interviewed thousands of witnesses and indicted over 160 people. With Mladic convicted, it will soon wrap up for good. As with other military tribunals, such as the Nuremberg trials, it gives the impression of closure to a horrific war.

But in the Balkans, tensions continue to simmer. The legacies of the war are still present: for example, the Serbian autonomous republic within the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nor are the ideas behind it dead — one Serbian official declared that Mladic “would always be a Serb hero”.

Crime and punishment

These trials are deeply flawed, say some. Crimes like genocide are committed by whole armies. But only a few figureheads are punished, long after the war ended and in far-off countries. This gives the world a false impression of how and why war crimes happen. Meanwhile, the victims are largely forgotten.

Of course such trials are not perfect, reply others. But ponder the alternative: the criminals all walk free. Tribunals like ICTY achieve a limited justice, while encouraging discussions of the crimes in question. And they send out a warning to other would-be mass murderers. That is important, as crimes like Mladic’s are being committed right now.

You Decide

  1. Has justice been served?
  2. War criminals often claim they were “just following orders”. Is that a valid defence?


  1. Imagine you get to interview Mladic in prison. Write down five questions for him.
  2. Split into groups and each pick one of the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Prepare a profile of that country (its history, culture, demographics), and present it to the class.

Some People Say...

“Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.”

John F. Kennedy

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The massacre was part of the Bosnian War – one of several conflicts which broke out when the former communist state of Yugoslavia split up to form different countries. Mladic was the army’s chief of staff during the war of the 1990s. Now he has been found guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
What do we not know?
What the conviction will mean for the rest of the world. While some are pleased that justice has finally been served, others worry that it took so many years to capture and try Mladic. They fear that this slow progress sets a precedent for other places where war crimes or genocide are suspected today — including Myanmar, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

Word Watch

Yugoslav Wars
The communist country of Yugoslavia was home to a wide variety of ethnicities, including Muslim Bosnians and Orthodox Serbs. When Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s, its various nations waged wars that lasted the best part of a decade.
The Hague
The capital of the Netherlands is home to both the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. It is therefore a major hub of international law.
Nuremberg trials
A series of military tribunals held by the victorious Allies in 1945 and 1946. They tried and convicted many senior Nazis, and laid the groundwork for matters relating to war crimes.
The Balkans
A region of southeast Europe which encompasses Bosnia, Serbia and most of the former Yugoslavia, as well as other countries.
Right now
For instance, Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, has just declared that Myanmar’s treatment of its Muslim Rohingya minority amounts to ethnic cleansing.


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