Nov. 22, 2017
Ratko Mladic got what he deserved, which is the beginning of the story.
Forget, for a moment, the legal jargon that defines what are known as crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. Think, instead, of this simpler thing: siege warfare. In plain language, that’s one of the many outrages Mladic, a former general, presided over during the war in Bosnia — for which an international war crimes tribunal has just condemned him to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Think of the hideousness of what siege warfare consists of — establishing military control of the territory and waterways around cities, choking off the supply of food and water to people who die without enough of it. Keep in mind that the weakest suffer first, the children, the sick, the old, the pregnant. A siege is not passive; to hasten its consequences, attacks against the vulnerable population are conducted with whatever instruments are available. That is what happened in one form or the other in the Middle Ages, when storybooks tell us siege warfare became a viable military product, and it happened in the 1990s, when as a young reporter, I was naive enough to be shocked that the so-called international community would allow Bosnian Serb forces led by Mladic to suffocate Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Gorazde, Zepa, and other cities that the United Nations laughingly and toothlessly declared as “safe areas.”
Mladic’s conviction offers a moment of joyless satisfaction for the victims and survivors of his carnage, which was mostly directed against Muslims. A generation has passed, but various authors of the Balkan wars of the 1990s have eventually received the only reward they merited: a prison cell. Last year, the Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadžic was convicted of war crimes. The Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševic was in jail preparing for his trial when he died of a heart attack. A handful of others, including Croats and Kosovars, have been brought to trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, as the body that convicted Mladic is known. Many more war criminals escaped prosecution and some, like Croat leader Franjo Tudman, lived in peace and died as heroes, but a measure of justice has been done.
Whatever congratulations anyone might feel about this news should be tempered with shame. Siege warfare is happening at this very moment in Yemen, where whole cities and regions have been cut off by a Saudi-led military alliance. The generation-ago crimes for which Mladic has been justly condemned are happening again right now. Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the United States, so you will not hear the State Department calling for a war crimes tribunal to deal with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — good friends of President Donald Trump and his crown prince, Jared Kushner. The real twist, of course, is that the siege warfare for which Mladic has been vilified is, in its Yemeni iteration, actively facilitated by the U.S., which provides munitions, targeting intelligence, and mid-air refueling to Saudi bomber jets.
The International Criminal Court might seem the best forum for investigating what’s happening in Yemen, but as Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch notes, there are only two pathways for that to happen. If the U.N. Security Council refers the matter to the ICC, or if one of the ICC member states involved in the conflict demands an investigation. On the first, the U.S. would likely block the Security Council from acting against its Saudi ally (and itself). On the second, neither Yemen nor Saudi Arabia are members of the ICC. However, the Commissions of Inquiry at the U.N. Human Rights Council can recommend that the Security Council take measures to sanction Saudi Arabia, according to Whitson, as was the case with Iran. But because Saudi Arabia is strongly supported by and aligned with the U.S., sanctions are unlikely.
The most vivid critique of the ICC and other U.S.-supported war crimes tribunals of recent decades is that they are victor’s justice of a sort. The foreigners who face trial tend to be ones who made the mistake of committing their crimes without the backing of the U.S., or against the interests of the United States. The critique goes further than that — if you happen to be from a powerful country that committed war crimes that the U.S. did not support — let’s say, Russian forces in Chechnya — you will not face an international court because your leaders have enough clout to stifle the residual moral reflexes of Washington and Brussels at the United Nations. It is only small countries that have to hand over their thugs.
The critique goes deeper still. What of the war crimes — for the sake of nonjudgmental argument, let’s call them potential war crimes — directly committed by the United States itself in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan? U.S. courts have convicted a handful of mostly low-level soldiers and contractors for only a smattering of offenses, but their main crime was to be noticed. If it were not for the efforts of journalists who exposed the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Mahmudiyah, Nisour Square, and other versions of My Lai, you probably would not have heard of these places, and nobody would have been punished. Exposure is not always a precursor for justice, however — nobody has been jailed for what a lengthy congressional report determined to be torture at the CIA’s “black sites.” George Tenet, the CIA director who presided over it, received a presidential medal of freedom.
Today, there is a president of the United States who has pronounced himself nostalgic for the use of torture techniques that even the Pentagon has belatedly and officially condemned. His government has launched more drone strikes, happening under looser guidelines, than ever before. At the moment, it seems hopeless to dream of a future in which consistency will be the hallmark of war crimes tribunals. That’s why the Mladic verdict is so important, not just for the victims of his injustices, but for the injustices committed now.
A generation ago, when I met the men and women — OK one woman: Biljana Plavšic — who gave the orders that killed so many innocents in Bosnia, it was pretty much unthinkable that their crimes would catch up with them. Miloševic extradited? Mladic humbled? Karadžic found after years of living under an assumed name as a New Age healer in Belgrade with his graying hair in a ponytail? This was no less hallucinatory than a low-IQ reality television star boasting of assaulting women and getting elected president. The trial of Ratko Mladic is a necessary reminder that our imaginations are no match for what the future may bring.