LONDON/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Ratko Mladic’s arrest more than a decade and a half after the bloodshed of Sarajevo and Srebrenica sends a strong message that while international justice might be painfully slow it can have a long memory.
Sceptics, however, may see the sword of justice as double edged. Fear of a reckoning could encourage figures such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Sudan’s Omar Al Bashir, indicted on similar charges, to cling to power with even greater tenacity.
Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander, would have hoped support from elements of the Serb state and fears of a nationalist backlash if he were arrested would keep him at liberty for the rest of his life.
The political dynamics, however, turned against him, with aspirations to greater international integration banishing any residual loyalty the Serb establishment might have had for him.
“There probably will still be at least some protest and some kind of backlash, but less than there would have been a few years ago,” said Zachary Rothstein, regional analyst for consultancy Control Risks.
“The majority of people will almost certainly be much keener on EU membership than wanting to protect Mladic and others for nationalist reasons.”
Richard Dicker, at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that more than 15 years after the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, Mladic’s arrest sends a warning to leaders such as Bashir and Gaddafi that “justice never forgets”.
Daniel Keohane, a Paris-based senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, said however the threat of arrest, even years down the track, could intensify the Libyan conflict and Gaddafi’s resolve to stay in power.
“Either he (Gaddafi) tries to hold out to the last man or he tries to leave to somewhere where he can avoid prosecution. He really only has two options because of the ICC procedures against him,” Keohane said.
The age before international tribunals saw many dictators, the tide having turned against them, disappear into peaceful exile; among them, late Ugandan leader Idi Amin, Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, now in Zimbabwe, and Jean-Claude Duvalier who recently returned to Haiti from 25 years French exile.
Despite Mladic’s arrest, pursuing war crimes suspects has been difficult, with two of the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal’s three main suspects, Mladic and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, arrested only in the past three years.
Sudan’s Bashir, indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court in 2010, is still in power, while Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, has eluded arrest for more than six years after being indicted by the ICC.
“Tracking down fugitives is hard work, especially if the fugitive in question has a support network and has informants within government structures ... or goes so completely to ground as to leave no real traces,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College.
Some arrests also rely on regime change, an issue observers say raises concerns about notions of ‘victor’s justice.’ Rights groups say international courts must probe acts by both sides of a conflict, such as in the Ivory Coast, to avoid claims of bias.
And although some hope Mladic’s apprehension will work to deter future crimes, Dutch-based international law specialist Geert-Jan Knoops said there is “no clear evidence” that international war crimes trials will deter political leaders.
NATO powers are now stepping up military pressure on Libya leader Gaddafi, hanging onto power despite a rebel uprising against his four-decade rule. ICC prosecutors meanwhile investigate allegations of persecution.
“Major war criminals are not easily deterred; that’s one of the reasons they were, tragically, successful at committing their crimes,” said Eli Richardson, a former resident legal advisor to Serbia with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Still, Richardson adds the Mladic case could serve as a deterrent, at least for some.
The U.N. Security Council referral of Libya to the ICC marked an important turning point in support for the court as it was the first unanimous referral and the first time the United States and China had voted to send a case to the court.
Trials of war crimes suspects can prove frustratingly slow, however, and potentially undermine support for courts like the ICC, which is yet to complete its first trial.
Slobodan Milosevic died in 2006, four years into a trial at Yugoslavia war crimes court that called hundreds of witnesses.
Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor at the Yugoslavia tribunal, defended the length of the trials, stressing they focus on massive crimes, such as ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Despite being broadly welcomed, the operation to kill Osama bin Laden later raised concerns the United States may have gone too far in acting as policeman, judge and executioner.
Gvosdev, at the U.S. Naval War College, also points to the importance of arrests and trials to help establish truth.
“The evil of the Holocaust sank in and was digested not in 1945-46 in the aftermath of the war but after the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1961 ... and the meticulously-prepared case which detailed the ‘final solution’,” he said.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)
(Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac)