SFOR Indictee Arrest Record Mixed

Logistical problems and a lack of international political will have hampered SFOR’s pursuit of Hague fugitives.

SFOR Indictee Arrest Record Mixed

Logistical problems and a lack of international political will have hampered SFOR’s pursuit of Hague fugitives.

Wednesday, 9 November, 2005

NATO-led peacekeepers in Bosnia handed over to a European Union force this week, with the job that many viewed as one of the mission’s key tasks - the arrest of war crimes suspects - left unfinished.

More than a decade after their indictments were made public, a number of the most wanted Hague fugitives remain at large, some believed to have escaped capture by crossing into neighbouring Serbia.

Since its mission began nine years ago, the NATO force, SFOR, has arrested 28 tribunal indictees. Three were shot while resisting arrest. But 13 accused remain at large – including the two highest-profile fugitives, the former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and the ex-commander of the Bosnian Serb army Ratko Mladic. Both are indicted on various charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

SFOR’s failure to capture Karadzic and Mladic is viewed by critics of the force as one of its main shortcomings.

Logistical problems and a lack of political will on the part of the governments whose troops made up the multi-national peacekeeping force are seen as the main causes of this failure.

SFOR officials, however, have for years stressed that their primary duty was peacekeeping - not the pursuit of war crimes suspects, which, they say, was the responsibility of Bosnian security services.

Looking back, SFOR's outgoing commander, American brigadier general Steven Schook told Bosnian journalists on November 23 that he was in fact “very proud” of his force’s record on arrests.

Some aspects of this record do look better than others - although the last high-profile seizure took place more than four years ago, when the NATO-led force arrested Karadzic's right hand man, former Bosnian presidency member Momcilo Krajisnik. He was apprehended literally in his pyjamas in a night raid on his home and brought to The Hague in April 2000.

Six years ago, in December 1998, alliance troops arrested former Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic, who was sentenced this year to 35 years imprisonment for his role in the 1995 massacre of Srebrenica Muslims.

Another significant detention was that of Radoslav Brdjanin, a Bosnian Serb wartime leader in the western Krajina region, who was arrested in July 1999 and recently handed a 25-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity.

Notwithstanding the above arrests, critics say a majority of those apprehended were low- to middle-ranking war crimes suspects, relatively easy to pick up, as they enjoyed much less protection than more senior indictees.

“Out of the 28 arrested, 18 were small fish without support networks,” said Antonio Prlenda, a military analyst with the Sarajevo Oslobodjenje newspaper.

The two most-wanted Bosnian Serbs, Karadzic and Mladic, are deemed to have large support networks in Republika Srpska, which includes many politicians and security officers who finance and protect them.

They were both indicted by the tribunal in 1995, the year the Dayton peace agreement was signed, bringing the Bosnian war to an end.

In the first year after the accord, however, Karadzic was still effectively in power, officially in charge of both the Serbian part of Bosnia and his political party. Mladic had retired immediately after the war, but for several years he was every so often spotted skiing or attending family parties.

“The most important thing [at the time] was to get the Dayton agreement confirmed through the holding of elections in September 1996,” Dr James Gow, director of the international peace and security programme at King’s College London, told IWPR. “That is why there were no arrests.”

Karadzic officially retired from public life in summer 1996, following an agreement brokered by the then US assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrook and Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian president at the time, and now himself on trial for war crimes in The Hague.

As the years passed and Karadzic remained a free man, rumours grew that he struck a deal with Holbrooke, providing him with US guarantees of immunity from prosecution at the tribunal - something both the American diplomat and Washington consistently deny.

There were also suggestions that France might have been trying to protect the former Bosnian Serb leader, with media reports that French army officers tipped him off about an arrest bid - an allegation Paris rejected.

The rumours and conspiracy theories have swirled because of the lack of progress in tracking down the Hague court’s most wanted men.

But some analysts suggest that SFOR efforts to apprehend the likes of Karadzic and Mladic have been hamstrung by serious logistical problems.

“The problem which some critics fail to take into account is that it takes a great deal of planning and knowledge to pull off a successful arrest operation,” said Gow. “The key is in knowing 24 hours in advance the location of the suspect and the environment in which the arrest team will be operating.”

Dr Rachel Kerr, an expert in international law at King’s College London, who has studied the arrest process, agrees.

“While it is possible to find out where Karadzic was yesterday, it is much more difficult thing to find out where he will be tomorrow and the next day, in order to plan an operation,” she told IWPR.

Analysts say the lack of coordination between NATO member states, the tribunal and SFOR have not helped matters in this respect.

“Smarter, better coordination and more determined commitment amongst the plethora of forces who have attempted to apprehend suspects would have led to better results,” Professor Tom Gallagher, chair of ethnic conflict and peace studies at Bradford university, told IWPR.

In particular, cooperation and information-sharing between the tribunal and SFOR has had its ups and downs.

The most striking example of this was the 1997 refusal of Dutch SFOR troops to arrest a Bosnian Croat indictee Miroslav Bralo, who wanted to surrender at a checkpoint they managed. Unlike Bralo, SFOR soldiers had not been informed that Hague prosecutors had issued a sealed indictment against him.

And although this cooperation has improved with time, and a number of people alleged to be Karadzic's close allies have been arrested this year in a series of probes into his support network, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte still betrays clear frustration with NATO’s performance.

“NATO has supported us a lot in what we have done in the field to obtain evidence,” she recently told BBC. “But NATO has always, always said they don't have the mandate to locate fugitives."

The other major reason cited for the failure to arrest top indictees is the apparent lack of international political will to do so.

Over the last three years, the global focus has switched away from dealing with potential sources of Balkan instability - which high-level Hague fugitives represent - to countering Islamic militancy.

“If you talk to those in 10 Downing Street or the Champs Elysees, they will tell you that Karadzic and Mladic simply don't represent the kind of threat that terrorist groups from the Middle East do,” said military analyst Paul Beaver. “Nowadays the political interest is no longer in Bosnia, and special forces together with intelligence assets have been diverted to other places in the global counter terrorism effort or what the Americans call the war on terror.”

Under the circumstances, Gow believes that SFOR’s record on arresting indictees has been good, “ I would give them seven out of ten overall on the war crimes suspect issue,” he said. “To focus solely on Karadzic and ignore SFOR's other arrests is unfair.”

But other analysts beg to differ, arguing that the failure to arrest Karadzic in particular has blocked political progress in Bosnia.

They say his powerful influence on hardliners in the Bosnian Serb government has held up the reform process.

“Because Karadzic was never picked up, he continued to be the ultimate arbitrator amongst the Bosnian Serb leadership,” said James Lyon, the head of the Belgrade office of the International Crisis Group. “So the failure to arrest him had a negative impact on areas such as refugee return, police force reform and organised crime.”

Beaver suggests that the situation is unlikely to change now with SFOR’s hand over to EUFOR, the EU-led security force, which took charge of peacekeeping responsibilities on December 2.

“EUFOR is around the same strength as SFOR and it does not appear that their arrival heralds any change in national priorities regarding Karadzic,” he said. “I don't think that EUFOR has the capability to do this although I would love to be proved wrong.”

EUFOR like SFOR emphasise that the local authorities in Bosnia are responsible for arresting Hague indictees. “The primary responsibility to apprehend war criminals lies with the Bosnian authorities,” said EUFOR commander General David Leakey, adding however that EUFOR would “offer operational support and intelligence where appropriate” to them.

Hugh Griffiths is an IWPR contributor in the Balkans.

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