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Some Thoughts on the Mladic Judgment

Published on November 27, 2017        Author: 

Last week the ICTY rendered its trial judgment against Ratko Mladic, the wartime military commander of the Bosnian Serbs (summary; the judgment itself is available here, in four volumes at some 2500 pages). The outcome was basically as I predicted in my previous post: Mladic was convicted on all counts except for count 1, genocide in Bosnian municipalities other than Srebrenica. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Justice was done, and that is a very good thing; the nationalist reactions to the judgment in the Balkans were unfortunately also as predicted, and that is not. In this post I will briefly give a few thoughts on the two issues I raised in my previous post – the count 1 genocide acquittal and the shelling of the Markale marketplace in Sarajevo.

As for the former, the basic outcome here was the same as in the Karadzic case – the Trial Chamber unanimously found that no genocide was committed in Bosnian municipalities other than Srebrenica. The road taken to get to that outcome was, however, different. In the Mladic case the majority of the Trial Chamber (Judge Orie dissenting) found that the physical perpetrators of the killings in (some, but not all of) the municipalities DID have an intention to destroy a part of the Bosnian Muslim group as such (para. 3456 / p. 1764 et seq of the judgment, conclusion in para. 3526); however, they then found that this intention was not to destroy a SUBSTANTIAL part, as required by the jurisprudence of the ad hoc tribunals (para. 3527  et seq, conclusion in para. 3536).

This substantiality criterion has admittedly never been conceptually clear, or easy to apply in practice. Even so, the majority was probably in error here – essentially they inferred the intent to destroy from the massive scale of the crimes and the fact that individual victims were targeted on a discriminatory basis, i.e. they were killed because of their ethnicity. But that confuses killings on the basis of a discriminatory motive with an intention to destroy (a part, however defined) of a group, as such. The majority’s approach also invites problematic line-drawing with regard to how Srebrenica was in fact genocide, which essentially boils down to the number of people killed, or available to be killed, belonging to a certain ethnic group. (That said, I have personally never been comfortable with this arithmetic of genocide or with essentially morally arbitrary distinctions between genocide and crimes against humanity, which we are legally compelled to get into.)

By contrast, Judge Orie in his very brief dissenting opinion (the Chamber was otherwise unanimous on all counts, which is again a good thing), finds that the only reasonable inference that could be drawn from the evidence is that the physical perpetrators had the intention to displace Bosnian Muslims (killing many in the process) from certain areas, but not destroy them as a group. The Trial Chamber was unanimous that a genocidal intent could not be attributed by inference to the high-ranking leadership or members of the overarching joint criminal enterprise, whose purpose was ethnic cleansing rather than genocide (paras. 4234-4237).

As things stand, with unanimous trial chambers in both the Mladic and Karadzic cases finding on the facts that genocide was not committed in the Bosnian municipalities, I think it is unlikely in the extreme that this conclusion will be disturbed by the MICT Appeals Chamber on appeal, especially because the trial chambers are due some deference on their factual findings. (Not, again, that this will stop Bosniak nationalists from saying that the totality of the conflict was a genocide.)

On the Markale shelling, unlike in Karadzic, the Mladic Trial Chamber was unanimous that the shelling was perpetrated by Bosnian Serb forces. Reading through the judgment, it is clear that the defence strategy was to raise reasonable doubt as to the identity of the perpetrators by any means necessary. For that purpose it called a host of different factual and expert witnesses, virtually each of which had a different (conspiracy) theory as to what had actually happened. The Trial Chamber essentially demolished each of these witnesses in turn; perhaps the most amusing example (if a macabre one) was the testimony of defence expert Zorica Subotic who claimed that the shell that had hit the marketplace was planted on the scene rather than fired from Serb positions. Her basis for claiming so is that a particular piece of the shell could never be detached from it, but was found detached on the scene. This is what happened then (paras 2091-2092):

Subotić testified that the mortar shell that exploded at Markale Market was planted there. In this respect, the Trial Chamber observes with concern the lengths to which the witness was prepared to go to ‘prove’ that the evidence regarding the Markale market incident had been staged. One of the most disconcerting theories offered by the witness was her evidence that bodies at the scene of the explosion had been ‘staged’ or planted there for the occasion. This theory, besides falling squarely outside her area of expertise, rested on rampant speculation. … The witness’s basic claims were that (i) the mortar shell which hit Markale Market could not have fallen at the angle which other experts concluded it had, and (ii) that the tail fin of the mortar shell – also called the stabilizer – was planted at the Markale Market site after the explosion. The witness testified that she examined whether there were two stabilizers. The witness’s research on the Markale incident was based on examining photographs of the tail fin that was found at Markale Market and using a similar tail fin she had brought into court. On this basis, the witness drew her conclusions. The claim that the stabilizer was planted at the site was, in the witness’s opinion, supported by the fact that the mortar shell’s base charge could not by any kind of force before, during, or after the mortar shell exploded, be disconnected from the body of the stabilizer. To prove this point, the witness brought a stabilizer attached to base charge to court and stated that they could not be unscrewed from each other which, the witness claimed, was a technical matter not in dispute. When the charge was handed to the bench, the judges managed to unscrew the charge within a matter of seconds using a plastic ballpoint pen. For her research on the Markale incident, the witness used firing tables from 2001 and testified that she did not have firing tables from before that time. At the same time, the witness acknowledged that precise firing tables are essential to calculate matters such as a mortar’s velocity or its angle of descent.

And so forth. The judges found none of the evidence presented by the defence in this regard to be persuasive. Thus, 5 of the 6 ICTY trial judges who last looked at the matter thought that the shell was fired from Bosnian Serb positions. That should be good enough for anyone, but unfortunately it will not be so in the Balkans, where the conspiracy theories dispelled in the courtroom will continue to persist.

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