Sometimes, the bad guys do get caught. And sometimes, the bad guys do get kicked out. Not often enough, admittedly, and usually, it’s much too late, but still, I’d rather they were dealt with late than never.
General Ratko Mladić, former commander of the Serb forces in Bosnia, will spend the rest of his life in jail after being convicted of crimes that the judge at his trial in The Hague called ‘among the most heinous known to humankind’. Robert Mugabe, the brutal, corrupt autocrat who misruled Zimbabwe for much of the 37 years he was in power, has been unceremoniously forced to resign.
I’ll return to ex-President Mugabe in a moment, but let’s concentrate first on Ratko Mladić. The war in Bosnia has already faded into history, yet it was ― and remains ― a stain on Europe’s post-1945 history that shames us all to this day.
Just look at the list of Mladić’s crimes, as set out in the judgement of the war crimes tribunal. Genocide; persecution (a crime against humanity); extermination (a crime against humanity); murder (a crime against humanity); murder (a violation of the laws or customs of war); deportation (a crime against humanity); the inhumane act of forcible transfer (a crime against humanity); terror (a violation of the laws or customs of war); unlawful attacks on civilians (a violation of the laws or customs of war); and the taking of hostages (a violation of the laws or customs of war).
The dry legal terminology does little to reflect the sheer horror of the atrocities committed by fighters under Mladić’s command. (And, it should be acknowledged, by others as well.) You can read the full judgement summary here if you have the stomach for it.
Mladić was a monster. But he was not unique. In Myanmar, there are generals engaging in their own version of ethnic cleansing against the Royingha. In Saudi Arabia, there are generals ordering air attacks and blockades on Yemen which are causing thousands of civilian deaths. And in Zimbabwe, irony of ironies, the man now being heralded as that benighted country’s hope for a fresh start, Emmerson Mnangagwa, could ― had the cards fallen differently ― equally have found himself accused of war crimes for his part in the massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s.
But partial justice is still a sort of justice. There may well be an argument for examining whether US and British generals ― as well as their political masters ― should be prosecuted for their actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. And what about President Putin, for his air force’s bombing of civilians in Syria? The truth is that when the chips are down, international law can never overcome the dictates of political calculation. Even so, I don’t believe the inadequacies of our system of international law invalidates the process that led to the conviction of Ratko Mladić.
As for Robert Mugabe, it seems he will be allowed to see out his days undisturbed by any threat of being held accountable for his decades of brutality. Perhaps it’s the price that has to be paid for a peaceful, bloodless transition to a post-Mugabe era.
Mugabe has not ended up in a court of law, nor has he been toppled by a popular uprising. His rule was ended by what the Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai aptly characterised as a ‘factional war of succession’, in which the army backed Emmerson Mnangagwa over Mr Mugabe’s wife Grace.
So peace is not the same as justice. As we know from northern Ireland, sometimes one comes at the expense of the other. And in South Africa, the post-apartheid settlement also accepted that: police officers, prison guards and others were spared prosecution in the interests of a peaceful transition from white minority rule.
As a result, a lot of bad guys got away with it, just as they did in northern Ireland. And many more ― in Myanmar, Russia, Syria, and Saudi Arabia ― will also get away with it. Not necessarily in the interests of peace, but in the interests of Big Power politics.
Ratko Mladić was prosecuted because he committed his crimes at a time when, briefly, the world’s major powers were agreed that the most egregious of crimes had to be dealt with internationally, under the auspices of the United Nations.
But that moment has now passed. President Assad of Syria, the ‘assertive’ new crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and the generals who rule Myanmar in uneasy partnership with Aung San Suu Kyi, all have powerful Big Power patrons. They are all safe ― for now, at least.
But politics are fickle, as Ratko Mladić has learnt. The tide can turn ― and one day, today’s war criminals may also find themselves facing justice.
As I wrote last February: ‘Neither President Assad, nor anyone in his circle, can lie in their beds at night confident that they will never face justice. Their current protectors in Moscow and Tehran have their own interests to protect, and would quite happily throw Assad to the wolves if they considered it to be in their own national interests.’
I have to be honest, though ― I’m not holding my breath.