International limelight for war crimes defendant

Poet, novelist, doctor, war criminal? Which is the real Radovan Karadžić? © ICTY

As he begins a two-year defence against war crimes charges in The Hague’s international court, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić has a platform for his flamboyant defiance.

‘I'm a mild and tolerant man with a great capacity for understanding others.’

This was the astonishing opening line in what could be a two-year argument by one of the world’s most notorious moral outcasts, Radovan Karadžić, former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, who is defending himself at an international trial against charges of war crimes and genocide.

It was a ‘big, bold and brash’ performance, from a man as famous for creating myths about himself as for his alleged crimes.

Karadžić, who is a trained psychiatrist, is accused of masterminding a campaign to murder and drive out the Muslim population of Bosnia. This ‘ethnic cleansing’ was carried out during the war that followed the collapse of the multi-ethnic Balkan nation of Yugoslavia in 1993.

At the height of the war, journalists discovered that Serb forces were separating Muslim families and holding the men in secret internment camps (it later emerged that many of the women were systematically raped). During a terrible two days in July 1995, between 6000 and 8000 Muslims were slaughtered at Srebrenica while officially under the protection of international troops in a so-called safe haven.

Yesterday’s defence was Karadžić’s chance, after hearing two years of accusations from the prosecutors, to deny responsibility. In asserting that he was a peaceful man, who ‘should be rewarded for all the good that I have done’, he caused shock and revulsion around the world.

This may be nothing more than a clever line of defence. But it is possible, too, that Karadžić believes his own myth: even international wanted notices, issued by police during his 13 years on the run, described him as ‘flamboyant’. He is a poet, and uses his art to contribute to the passionate Serb nationalism which fuelled ethnic cleansing. While he was in hiding Karadžić also published a novel. It sold out at the Belgrade book fair, and many Serbs remain fiercely loyal to the man they see as a hero.

Stage and screen

This is a vital moment in European history, says one journalist who reported from the Bosnian internment camps. Reconciliation can only happen after international justice has established exactly who knew about the genocide in Bosnia, and how far up the chain of command responsibility lies.

Others believe the trial, which is held on camera and televised live, is a revolting spectacle. Some of the media that covered the Bosnian war tweeted that they couldn’t bear to watch the unrepentant Karadžić being given such an opportunity to self-aggrandise.

Does the courtroom become too much of a theatre for a manipulative character like Karadžić? Or is his posturing the price the world must pay if justice, when war crimes have been committed on such a scale, is seen to be done?

You Decide

  1. Should court cases be televised? Always? Never?
  2. Could genocide happen in any country? If not, what prevents it?


  1. Creative writing: imagine you have committed a crime and, like Karadžić, have chosen to defend yourself. What does the experience of being in the dock feel like?
  2. Research the institutions set up to enforce the international laws governing conflict. Make a presentation about their successes and flaws.

Some People Say...

“Wicked people are always the most charismatic.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This seems like a small footnote in history to me.
Far from it – it’s an important chapter for Europe. The war crimes committed in the Balkans after Yugoslavia split into smaller nations were the worst since the second world war. As Croats, Muslims, Albanians and Serbs all competed over territory, violence along ethnic lines pitted former friends, colleagues and neighbours against each other.
OK but it still seems irrelevant.
Really? The norms of civilised behaviour and even the rules of war were overturned easily and quickly in Bosnia. How confident can we be that we would behave well in extreme situations? We need to bring those guilty of atrocities to justice partly to deter other dangerous murderers, and partly to remind ourselves what can happen when tensions aren’t held in check.

Word Watch

Ethnic cleansing
A euphemistic term for the murder and displacement of an ethnic group, in order to establish a territory for another ethnic group. This phrase was coined during the Bosnian war to justify the genocide for which Karadžić is being tried.
The countries to the south east of the European continent, on the Balkan peninsula, are known as the Balkan States. They have a large Muslim population because the region was ruled by the Ottomans (today’s Turks) between the 1300s and the early 19th Century. Today many of the Balkan nations would like to join the European Union and are trying to develop democracy and human rights in order to do so.
A large nation formed in 1945, under Communist rule after the second world war, which unified several disparate Balkan nations. It brought stability under Marshall Tito, but was repressive.
The forced assembly and imprisonment without trial of people who are getting in the way, often during war or conflict. During WWII there were internment camps in the UK for foreign nationals whom the authorities didn’t trust.


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