Trials of Thomas Lubanga and Ratko Mladic show impunity for war crimes is disappearing – slowly

07/10/2012 12:00 AM

11/16/2012 6:21 PM

In one courtroom, the once-feared military commander of the Bosnian Serbs, Ratko Mladic, was derided as a bully who supervised the siege of Sarajevo and threatened civilians, the Bosnian government and the United Nations whenever he felt like it.

In another courtroom across this Dutch capital, a Congolese warlord named Thomas Lubanga Dyilo was sentenced to 14 years in prison for impressing child soldiers into his militia.

The two proceedings Tuesday offered a telling sign that international criminal justice – which reached its height during the Nuremberg Tribunals after World War II – is up and running again. War crimes are still a fact in nearly every conflict, but impunity is fast disappearing for those responsible.

However, apprehending, trying and sentencing suspects has proven to be a slow process.

Lubanga, 51, was sentenced by the International Criminal Court, a permanent institution that was set up 10 years ago this month in the aftermath of the Bosnia and Rwanda conflicts, to try cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. His was the first case to reach completion at the tribunal, to which 121 countries are parties, not including the United States, Russia or China.

Lubanga was found guilty of conscripting, enlisting and using child soldiers in his militia during fighting in the eastern Congo in 2002-2003, in the latter stages of a conflict in which as many as 5 million people died, though not necessarily from direct combat. The prosecutor had asked for 30 years imprisonment, but the court decided to let Lubanga serve three sentences simultaneously, with allowance for the six years he’s spent in custody. At most, he will now serve eight years.

Just how far the ICC has come – and how far it still has to go – was made clear when Adrian Fulford, the British presiding judge, used the sentencing hearing to chastise Luis Moreno Ocampo of Argentina, who recently retired as the court’s first prosecutor, for a series of errors that slowed the case. Fulford said Moreno Ocampo hadn’t submitted evidence to back up his claims that Lubanga was responsible for extensive sexual violence and that he’d allowed a staff member to give misleading statements to reporters.

The media-savvy Moreno Ocampo became an international star in March when a YouTube video called “Kony 2012” went viral. The video portrayed Joseph Kony, a Ugandan militia leader, as the world’s biggest war criminal, and featured Moreno Ocampo, who’d indicted him, calling for his arrest.

As the Lubanga case came to an end, five miles to the southeast Mladic sat down to hear a second day of testimony against him in his trial for genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The oldest of the war crimes courts, dating to 1993, the ICTY indicted Mladic in 1995. After 16 years on the lam, he was arrested last year in Serbia and faces a trial that could last until 2014, if not longer.

Dressed in a gray suit, blue shirt and patterned tie, Mladic, now 70, took a lot more interest in the second witness, a former U.N. official in Sarajevo, than in the young Bosnian Muslim who started the proceedings Monday by telling the anguished tale of how Bosnian Serb troops forced his family from their home.

David Harland was a U.N. civil affairs officer for most of the three-and-a-half-year war, starting in June 1993, and his testimony made clear that Mladic was in charge of the siege of Sarajevo, operated on his own and had no strategy for ending the war despite an “enormous advantage” in troops and military hardware.

Harland said U.N. military observers counted on average 1,000 shells a day that Mladic’s forces rained on the Bosnian capital – more than half of it just background shelling “to keep the population of Sarajevo locked down, fearful . . . and terrorized,” he said

Harland met Mladic at least 20 times, usually as note-taker during regular meetings between the U.N. military commander and the Bosnian Serb leadership. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader who’s also now on trial at the ICTY, was often present.

He said reports filed by U.N. personnel in Bosnia don’t capture the flavor of the threats Mladic would make against the Bosnian government, the civilian population or the United Nations.

Asked by the prosecutor about Mladic’s threat in 1994 to the U.N. military chief of staff to kill “everyone in the eastern (U.N.-designated safe area) enclaves except the children” if Bosnian territorial forces did not release Serb soldiers they were holding prisoner, Harland noted dryly that Mladic was “making more bellicose threats than normal.”

On another occasion, Mladic warned that if the international community tried to stop the flow of oil and other supplies to the Bosnian Serb military, he’d do the same to the people of Sarajevo. “What Serbs don’t get, no one gets,” Harland quoted Mladic as saying.

Top U.N. officials would plead to the Bosnian Serb leaders to halt the use of snipers, who would daily take aim at civilians trying to get food and water. At one point they proposed to create barriers to protect them. Mladic rejected the plan. “Picking off civilians in downtown Sarajevo was one of the means to put pressure on the Bosnian government to settle the conflict on terms favorable to the Serbs,” Harland said.

He said the threats were not idle. “A discussion with Gen. Mladic was not really a rational discourse, and it wasn’t like a conversation like we’re having,” Harland said. “There was an introduction or protest by us, and then a verbal attack of some sort” by Mladic. He said the view of the U.N. forces on the ground was that Mladic “was like a bully. If the opportunity arose to carry out these threats, probably he would do it. But they weren’t really statements of plans.”

At the word “bully,” Mladic arched his eyebrows.

In fact, according to Harland, Mladic’s forces would seize land, kill or deport the Muslim population, force them into a smaller area, cut off their supplies, and expect the Bosnian government to give in to Serb demands. “It was a great frustration that the Bosnian government would not play that game,” he said.

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