Seven men who allegedly carried out killings during the Srebrenica massacre were arrested in Serbia. This gives Belgrade an opportunity for real reconciliation with its neighbors, writes DW's Dragoslav Dedovic.
In July 1995, around 8,000 unarmed Bosnian muslims were killed in the area of Srebrenica, located in the east of Bosnia-Herzegovina and close to the Serbian border. The International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague labeled the massacre a genocide. On Wednesday (March 18), almost 20 years after the massacre, there is some good news: the homicidal executors cannot roam with impunity anymore, not even in Serbia.
The bad news is: this comes 20 years late. One of the detainees had the nickname "the butcher." In the meantime, he had become a successful businessman in Serbia. How many of the country's alleged "good citizens" must now fear that their dark past, so far kept successfully under wraps, will be exposed?
A will to kill
As a matter of fact, it has to be assumed that murdering several thousand people within such a short timeframe was linked to political, logistical and operational premises.
The first premise is the political will to annihilate people on a massive scale. So far, two high-ranking representatives of the former Serbian elite are currently on trial in The Hague for that charge: the former political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, and his general Ratko Mladic. Both were hiding in Serbia until their respective arrests in 2008 and 2011, and both were clearly shielded by members of the Serbian secret service.
For a long time, the rulers in Belgrade turned a blind eye, partly because of misconceived "patriotism", partly because they assumed the price they would have to pay for an arrest and an extradition could be too high. They were haunted - as they admitted "off the record" - by the murder of Serbia's first democratic prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, in 2003. His violent death was viewed by many as an act of revenge by former autocratic president Slobodan Milosevic, who had been extradited to The Hague in 2001 in a cloak-and-dagger operation.
Slobodan Milosevic died in The Hague, without a conviction. Karadzic and Mladic were indicted, but they have not been convicted yet. Since the Court is to be shut down in 2016, a judgment will have to be passed during the following year at the latest. By the same token, that means that 20 years after the war none of the former political leaders has been declared officially and legally responsible.
Commanders and executors of genocide
The second premise for mass murder is operational logistics. Without military commanders of death, rogue politicians would be ineffective. On that level, the international justice system was slightly more successful: A Bosnian-Serb brigadier-general found guilty of aiding and abetting genocide has been sentenced to 35 years in prison. The former general staff security chief of the Republika Srpska army as well as the security chief of the corps that carried out the massacre were sentenced to life imprisonment, found guilty of genocide. But that's about it.
The third premise for the lethal efficiency of this kind of large-scale massacre is the participation of a multitude of "willing executors." In the Srebrenica case, this includes those who actually fired the shots; those who rounded up the people and deported them; those who almost exclusively separated men and boys aged between 13 and 78 from their mothers, sisters, wives and children and sent them to their deaths. Hundreds, maybe more, of those "small fry" are still at large.
The fourth premise is a complete failure on part of the civilized world, which is supposed to give the victims protection. Regrettably, that premise was fulfilled in Srebrenica as well. One thing is certain: on three levels - political decisionmakers, logistics experts, and executors - too few perpetrators have been charged over the past 20 years. Now there is a vague hope that this will change and that at least the actual killers who were directly involved will end up in court.
A chance for genuine reconciliation
In Serbia, but also elsewhere in the region, the favored approach was to delegate persecution of war crimes committed between 1991 and 1999 in the course of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia to the UN tribunal in The Hague: the "dirty work", in other words, was left to others. Occasionally, it was possible for local politicians to take advantage of this state of affairs. Lambasting the "biased" and "anti-Serbian" judiciary became a popular pastime.
The mission of the Hague tribunal will soon come to an end. The era of "outsourcing" criminal prosecution will be over for good. Beyond the trials already opened in The Hague, domestic courts have been solely responsible for upholding law and justice for a number of years already.
The prosecutors in charge have stressed that the recent arrests were made possible by cooperation between authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia - a most welcome development. If that means that now, eventually, the worst atrocities of the 1990s will be prosecuted systematically, Serbia will have a real chance to achieve an incremental, but genuine reconciliation with its neighbors. And, after all, this could also provide the bereaved with some sense of justice.