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Monday 9 December 2019
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Justice versus simple bigotry

Elizabeth Solomon writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

Last week a 74-year-old man was forcibly removed from a courtroom in the Netherlands. He was shouting unpleasantries at the judges reading the details of his conviction. The defence team made last-ditch efforts to put off the inevitable but, ultimately, the time had finally come for the “Butcher of Bosnia” to face justice for crimes described as “amongst the most heinous known to humankind.”

The United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights described Ratko Mladic as “the epitome of evil” and hailed the judgment that found him guilty of ten counts of genocide and crimes against humanity as “a momentous victory for justice.” Yet, there is emptiness in this long-awaited victory of justice over impunity.

If “evil” has a face the smug visage of Ratko Mladic would surely be it. The full extent and vile nature of what he was accused was supported by the discovery of his wartime diaries. In one entry, dated sometime in 1992, he records requesting assistance in disposing of 5,000 or so bodies of Bosniak (Muslim) men and boys by “burning them, grinding them, or in any other way.”

Suspecting a day would come when he would be asked to account for the mass killings he orchestrated, Mladic arranged for bulldozers to churn up the mass graves, shifting human remains between various sites to undermine DNA reconstruction.

At the height of his power, Mladic was able to convince peacekeeping troops in Srebrenica to relieve Bosniak men of the sparse collection of weapons with which they were defending themselves and their families on the promise of providing them safe passage, only to separate the men and boys from the women and girls. The male Muslims were driven in buses to violent deaths and the females raped to ensure their impurity. A strategy methodically carried out with military precision.

One of the many questions that challenged, and continues to defy, understanding, is why? Mladic’s defence team attempted to build a case around the military necessity of Gen Mladic’s actions, but the argument fell apart. David Harland, a former UN diplomat in Bosnia, observed that the mass executions amounted to a strategic blunder by Mladic, because their scale forced NATO to intervene against the Serbs. An article in The New Yorker describes Carl Bildt, a UN peace envoy who had met with Mladic during the conflict to demand protection for the Srebrenica prisoners, as saying that Mladic’s decision still haunted him. So why did Mladic order the killings? Many conclude he was motivated simply by unchecked bigotry.

Mladic underestimated the scale of time and resources that the international community would be willing to commit to bring them to justice. The trial, once it started, took 530 days, 9,914 exhibits of evidence were provided to the court and 591 witnesses were called. So, in that sense, one can feel better that international criminal justice mechanisms are willing to do the dogged work necessary in the fight against impunity, no matter how long it takes. A comforting thought, but time eats away at justice.

Survivors of the reign of the Butcher of Bosnia waited 22 years for a declaration of his guilt. In those 22 years Bosnia has in many ways entrenched the ethnic divisions of the war. UK Guardian journalist Ed Vuillany says, “The Hague tribunal’s remit was in part judicial, but also to ‘promote reconciliation’ in the Balkans. Well, there is none. Mladic got largely what he wanted: a Bosnian Serb statelet from which almost every non-Serb was banished in 1995, to which only a bold few precariously return. He is adored, his portrait adorns bars and office walls in Bosnia and Serbia, his name sung at football matches.”

So who really wins when a system bound by rules of fairness and rationality is pitted against simple bigotry. It is an almost sacrilegious thought that challenges an order of the world that most of us aspire to; a belief that if we do the right thing, good will (eventually) triumph over evil.

Well, life is too complex for such simple single-step paths to a just world. If the Bosnian war has taught us anything, it is that survival of a multi-ethnic nation takes dedicated protection of its multi ethnicity. A lesson we need to learn right here in Trinidad and Tobago. The fight for fairness must be fought on all fronts, at all times. The courtroom is no place to start fixing a society driven by inequality, intolerance and violence.

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