A UN war crimes tribunal has sentenced former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to 40 years in jail after finding him guilty of genocide and nine other charges. More than 20 years after the end of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, the sentencing of Karadzic is one more step in the long process of post-war reconciliation in Bosnia & Herzegovina. However, deep divisions remain within the country, and in the short term the verdict could again raise tensions between Bosniaks and Croats and the country’s ethnic Serb population.
The tribunal ruled that Karadzic, the supreme commander of the Bosnian Serb Army during the war was guilty of genocide in Srebrenica, where around 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in Europe's worst atrocity since World War II.
He was also found to be criminally responsible for the 44-month siege of Sarajevo, where 11,000 people died in bombings and sniper attacks. In total, he was found guilty on five counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of violations of the laws or customs of war, though the tribunal ruled he was not guilty on a more general charge of genocide.
Karadzic, who denied all the charges, stood in silence as the verdict was read out. He previously defended himself in an interview with Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) published on March 23, claiming that the Srebrenica massacre was carried out by “a random collection of guys summoned to do the killings... [who] hid it from their most immediate commander”.
The verdict was the most significant in any war crimes trial in Europe since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders at the end of World War II.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was set up by a UN Security Council resolution in 1993 to prosecute those responsible for serious crimes committed during the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s.
There were hopes this would help the post-war reconciliation process by bringing some measure of justice for those who had suffered or lost loved ones in the war. Jonathan Moore, head of the OSCE Mission to Bosnia & Herzegovina, said on March 14 he hoped Karadzic’s conviction would “bring a small degree of satisfaction to those who have been seeking justice for so long”.
“The pursuit of justice leaves none of us indifferent. It can be a long, complicated and controversial process. However, more than 20 years later, it is vitally important to bring war criminals to justice. That is essential to building a lasting peace in Bosnia & Herzegovina,” Moore said in a statement.
Karadzic, who had been dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia”, was indicted back in 1995. The five-year trial started in October 2009 and a further two years were needed for deliberations. The trial involved 586 witnesses, while prosecutors entered 3mn pages of evidence.
However, views of the process differ within Bosnia, where only a tiny minority of Bosnian Serbs consider the court to be fair, while most view it as “victor’s justice”. The verdict is likely to temporarily inflame tensions in a country where memories of the war are still vivid.
“In the short term, the verdict will cement existing divisions in views of the past and the war, but in the long-term it establishes a framework of how Bosnia’s war history will be written,” Roland Kostic, director of research (Holocaust and Genocide Studies) at Uppsala University’s Hugo Valentin Centre, tells bne IntelliNews.
The verdict has already been welcomed by Bosniak leaders including Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak holder of the country’s tripartite presidency and son of former president Alija Izetbegovic, who called the referendum on Bosnia’s independence from the Yugoslavian federation in 1992. “This judgment is important for victims, important for [Bosnia & Herzegovina], the region, and the whole world,” Izetbegovic said, according to a statement on his Party of Democratic Action’s website. “There is no penalty that can give full satisfaction to the victims in Bosnia & Herzegovina. However, this judgment showed that the civilized world understood their suffering, sympathized with them [and showed] that justice is slow but still, at least partially, attainable.”
However, it was criticised in the mainly ethnic Serb half of the country, Republika Srpska, where Prime Minister Zeljka Cvijanovic told state news agency SRNA there was grounds for appeal, claiming that, “international policy is practiced in a way that the culprits have been looked for in one side only."
Republika Srpska’s president, Milorad Dodik, has consistently spoken out in support of Karadzic. On March 20, Dodik opened a new student dormitory in Pale, a former wartime stronghold, named after Karadzic. Karadzic's daughter and wife unveiled the plaque at the ceremony.
Meanwhile, in Belgrade, nationalist leader Vojislav Šešelj led a rally on March 24, both in protest against Karadzic’s conviction and to mark the anniversary of the Nato bombardment of Serbia.
The reactions highlighted the continuing deep divisions within Bosnia; as Kostic tells bne IntelliNews, “People are divided over their views of the past, and have their own national narratives.”
However, there have also been more positive developments. “[I]n terms of willingness to coexist there has been a vast improvement since the 1990s. In my 2015 survey, around 71% of the population said they can continue to live together peacefully without external supervision,” Kostic says. “However, dealing with the past is only one aspect of post-war reconciliation. Other issues such as economic prosperity, and dealing with high unemployment and weak welfare system are also important.”
In February, Bosnia submitted its application for EU membership, which – despite some bickering between party leaders – is broadly supported by most groups within the country. Progress towards EU entry, and greater prosperity, is also expected to help Bosnia finally move on from a dark period of its history.