Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ANALYSIS: Tribunal 'Expecting' Arrest of Serb Fugitives

A report last week falsely claimed that Karadzic and Mladic had been detained, but the tribunal hints that they may soon turn up in The Hague.
By Mirko Klarin

In normal circumstances, information dispatched from an obscure Kosovo news agency, which was then reported by the Rome correspondent of the Russian news agency, Itar-Tass, would not attract attention.


The first thing that would normally be noticed is how unlikely the Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica would be to choose - of all news agencies - an unknown Kosovo Albanian agency to inform the world that American special forces had just arrested his former role models, the ex-Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.


The second notable thing would be Kostunica's alleged statement that the "Belgrade authorities had begun the procedure of their extradition to The Hague tribunal". If US special forces had snatched Karadzic and Mladic, no authorities, least of all those in Belgrade, would have any role in their transfer to The Hague.


Last but by no means least, alarm bells ought to have rung by the suggestion that the two fugitives had been arrested at the same time. This seems highly unlikely as Mladic is in Belgrade and Karadzic is assumed to be hiding in the mountains of south-east Bosnia.


In spite of these gaping holes, news of the arrests went round the world like lightning on the evening of January 17. And after the BBC fell for the Kosovo news agency/ Itar-Tass "scoop", nothing could stop the avalanche.


Spokespersons for tribunal and the prosecution were swamped that evening with dozens of calls from all over the world, asking when Karadzic and Mladic were arriving at The Hague and when they were due to appear before the judges.


Nor was the IWPR-SENSE office at the tribunal spared similar calls. Despite denials from Belgrade that President Kostunca gave "any such statement to any Kosovo agency", the avalanche continued to fall. Even White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and British prime minister Tony Blair made statements about what the latter called the "fantastic news" - which unfortunately proved to be untrue.


News of the arrests may only be a little premature, however, as they have been anticipated - which explains why the "scoop" had such global resonance. It fell on the fertile soil of expectations that it could happen any day.


The first informal reactions from the tribunal were that they "wouldn't be surprised [that they had been arrested], but...". That "but" primarily referred to the fact that it believes it will be informed of Karadzic's and/or Mladic's arrest through official channels, or, at least - if the Americans are involved - through the CNN breaking news specialist Christiane Amanpour, not a Kosovo agency report.


The tribunal sources, of course, did not disclose why they "wouldn't be surprised" if Karadzic and Mladic were finally to arrive at The Hague, six-and-a-half years after their indictment for double genocide (in Bosnia in general and in Srebrenica in particular).


If this can be qualified as optimism, it would not be founded on mere media speculation about fresh efforts by special American and/or British and French forces to trace the two most sought-after fugitives from international justice. If they "wouldn't be surprised", it can be assumed they have more reliable information, or guarantees, which they understandably do not wish to share with the media.


But it is not hard to see why the Americans and some of their allies in Bosnia (primarily the British and the French) might finally have mustered the "political will" they so obviously and infamously lacked in recent years, to bring an end to the shameful saga of bringing Karadzic and Mladic to justice.


Three such motives can be detected, not all of which are "pure" or "positive" ones from the tribunal's standpoint, or that of international justice.


The most recent motive became evident on Thursday night last week, while the "premature" report of the arrest of Karadzic and Mladic was circling the world. That night (conspiracy theorists might say the timing was no accident), the Sarajevo authorities controversially surrendered to the US five Algerians and one Yemeni suspected of terrorist links.


The handover occurred despite a ruling by Bosnia's highest court that they should be released. The government thus exposed itself to criticism that it treads on human rights and the rule of law and has also joined America's "war against Islam".


America is now indebted to the Bosnian Federation's non-nationalist government, and cannot simply repay it with the usual diplomatic praise of Bosnia's "courage" and "solidarity". The most effective way to return that "debt" and persuade Bosnia's ruffled public that Sarajevo and Washington are not allies in a "war against Islam" would be to finally bring to justice the main architects of grave crimes committed against Bosnian Muslims between 1992 and 1995.


It is astounding how Western analysis after the September 11 attacks overlooked the degree to which the failure to punish Karadzic and Mladic for their terrorism, extermination and persecution of Bosnian Muslims has contributed to the spread of Islamic radicalism and fanaticism.


Perhaps this is because questions would be asked about who in the West - through their lack of interest and action - failed to prevent them from carrying out the gravest crimes committed in Europe since the Second World War.


The second motive is that the Americans intend to withdraw all or most of their forces from SFOR in Bosnia in the coming months.


The US might, of course, leave while the two fugitives remain in Bosnia, though this would dent the prestige of the world's sole super-power. Nor would it bode well for "Dayton Bosnia", given Karadzic's malign influence in the Serbian entity, and the undisguised "fraternal ambitions", which a number of ruling politicians in Serbia, headed by Kostunica, harbour towards Republika Srpska.


For the Americans, as the leading force in the SFOR, the continued liberty enjoyed by Karadzic and Mladic is one of the biggest items of unfinished businesses and it is logical to expect them to try to put the two men behind bars in the UN detention unit in Scheveningen before they withdraw. It is a precondition of a triumphant exit, after six and a half years of the "implementation" and "stabilisation" of the Dayton Peace Agreements.


The last motive is less clear-cut, possibly less "clean" in relation to the tribunal, and well-informed circles around The Hague have only whispered about it until now. These whispers hold that the international community, or influential elements therein, are in a hurry to have Karadzic and Mladic extradited to The Hague so a deadline can be set for the tribunal to close.


The message may run along these lines: "You have Milosevic; now we have given you Karadzic and Mladic. What more do you want? Try them and close the shop. Your mandate is to prosecute the most responsible men. Forget the small fry and wrap it all up by 2006 or 2007 at the latest."


No one has said this publicly but informed sources claim influential figures in the international community are signalling that they believe the tribunal has served its purpose and are impatient for it to finish its mission. They feel the court is becoming a "pain in the neck " and want an "exit strategy".


This pressure has grown since September 11, as priorities change and memories of the horrors in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia fade. The tribunal's quest for justice, once considered critical in the search for lasting peace and reconciliation in former Yugoslavia, has again become a "factor of political destabiliation", as it was in July 1995, when the then-prosecutor Richard Goldstone angered Lord Owen and other mediators in peace talks with his first indictment against Karadzic and Mladic.


The international community is beginning to express understanding for the new democratic authorities in Belgrade and Zagreb's view that the tribunal is "destabilising" their administrations and upsetting relations between them and the old military or police structures by making "unreasonable" requests for cooperation in investigations and the surrender of generals and politicians suspected of war crimes.


The international community and the new authorities in Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Pristina, and recently, in Skopje, would like to go "forward" into a bright political and economic future, and feel the tribunal is forcing them back into their bloody past.


Karadzic and Mladic might thus become "victims" of the search for an "exit strategy". Their gift to the tribunal from the international community could resemble a Trojan horse given by the Danai: a blessing and a curse at the same time.


For all that, the tribunal is ready to face such a risk and to point out that they "wouldn't be surprised" if they were soon welcoming Karadzic and Mladic to The Hague.


Mirko Klarin is an IWPR senior editor at the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief of SENSE News Agency.