Courtside

UNPROFOR Chief on Mladic's "Total Control"

Former head of United Nations peacekeepers gives account of tight command structure of force engaged in “disproportionate” attacks.
  • Prosecution witness General Sir Michael Rose in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

A former commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bosnia testified this week that former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic had complete control over his subordinates during the conflict there.

“We had many opportunities to see how [Mladic] dealt with his subordinates. They showed complete respect and clearly were under [his] total command,” said prosecution witness General Sir Michael Rose, who led the United Nations Peacekeeping Force, UNPROFOR, from January 1994 until January 1995.

Rose said he met the accused and other members of the Bosnian Serb leadership on several occasions.

Prosecuting lawyer Camille Bibles asked whether Rose was ever aware that anyone in the army was acting “contrary or in opposition” to Mladic.

 “Never,” the witness replied.

He added that when it came to events on the ground in 1994, Mladic would “certainly be central to the battle plan and therefore in total control of what retreat or advance may be determined”.

Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996, is accused of planning and overseeing the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that ravaged the city and left nearly 12,000 people dead. He is accused of responsibility for a deliberate campaign of sniping at and shelling the city’s civilian population in order to “spread terror” among them.

The indictment – which lists 11 counts in total – alleges that Mladic was responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which "contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory".

Mladic was arrested in Serbia in May 2011 after 16 years on the run.

According to Rose’s witness statement, which the prosecution referenced in court, the Bosnian Serb leadership answered protests about heavy sniping and shelling by claiming their forces were only responding to attacks from the Bosnian government army. However, Rose said in his statement that the “disproportionality of the Bosnian Serb response undermines the credibility of this justification.”

“Why did you consider the Bosnian Serb response to be disproportionate?” Bibles asked the witness.

“Look at the [Sarajevo] suburb of Dobrinja. It was totally destroyed. If even a cat walked across the street, it was engaged by artillery. The response was demonstrably disproportionate,” Rose said.

The prosecutor asked if Rose was aware of “what level in the Bosnian Serb army made decisions” during negotiations such as a ceasefire or an agreement not to engage in sniping.

The witness said “all decisions” were taken at headquarters in the town of Pale by both military and civilian authorities, represented by Mladic and his counterpart, Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.

Bibles followed up by asking whether Rose was able to “form a judgement” about the ability of the army’s senior command to control the level of sniping in Sarajevo.

“In our view, there was absolute control of every sniper. [The sniper] would not have been allowed to open fire unless duly authorised,” Rose said.

Bibles also asked Rose about the humanitarian aid deliveries to civilians which formed part of UNPROFOR’s mission.

“Did you observe whether in it was in the Bosnian Serb interest to facilitate these convoys in 1994?” she asked.

“They found this contrary to their strategic aims,” Rose said.

He said that the Bosnian Serbs “used the flow of aid as an instrument to put pressure” on the Bosnian government to “sign up to peace on their terms.”

The convoys were often “physically blocked”, he said, and could be turned back for carrying “one more tin of baked beans” than they should.

During the cross-examination, Mladic’s defence lawyer Branko Lukic asked the witness whether the “Muslims were interested in extending the war”.

“Some time during 1994, the Bosnian government abandoned the peace process because they were being armed by the Americans and others and were given hope of recovering lost territory…. It was in their interest as they saw it to return to war,” Rose said.

Lukic later asked several questions about proportionality and what constitutes a “justified” response.

“If Muslim forces were to open fire from a built-up area, would the Serbs be justified in that event to open fire? What was the UNPROFOR position?” Lukic asked.

“The UNPROFOR position was that no one should fire from within a built up area and end up engaging the civilian population in combat, which is what happened far too many times in Bosnia and Hercegovina,” Rose said. “In any war, you have the right to return fire and of self-defence. But the response has to be proportionate.”

Pressing his point, Lukic said, “Talking about proportionality, we saw in the Afghan war a British aircraft opening fire with a 500 kg bomb at a soldier carrying a Kalashnikov. Can that be called proportionate? Who decides what proportionality actually entails? What military rules guide the decision?”

At this question, Mladic smiled as he chewed on the arm of his reading glasses.

Presiding Judge Alphons Orie intervened before the witness could answer.

“Mr Lukic, you are giving an example from different armed conflict and you are asking witness to write a thesis on many matters,” he said.

The defence lawyer narrowed his question and asked Rose to explain “what is proportionate”.

“In each set of circumstances you have to make a judgement, but for example, to call down an artillery barrage in Sarajevo against one mortar would be disproportionate because you are inevitably going to cause unnecessary civilian casualties,” Rose replied.

The Mladic trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.


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Former head of United Nations peacekeepers gives account of tight command structure of force engaged in “disproportionate” attacks.