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Karadzic a Big Win for Hague Cops

4 minute read
Samantha Power

When I worked as a reporter in besieged Sarajevo in 1994 and 1995, I sometimes fantasized (as did many who experienced Serbian shell and sniper fire) about the eventual arrest of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. I imagined him in handcuffs, decked out in his camouflage military attire or in one of his trademark double-breasted suits–his silver plume of well-coiffed hair a reminder of the lifestyle he maintained even after he choked off water supplies to his former home city.

Yet when Karadzic was arrested on July 21, the scene bore no resemblance to the one I had pictured. He wore his hair in a ponytail and sported giant spectacles and a Jerry Garcia beard. He feebly turned himself over to Serbian police as soon as they approached him near Belgrade. It had taken 13 years to put Karadzic behind bars, but his final minutes of freedom gave some indication of the life he had been leading–and showed the value of international justice, which deserves far more credit than it gets.

The litany of rogues who once boasted of their impunity but later ended up in the dock is surprisingly long, and each has been rapidly emasculated by his fall. A few years ago, I visited the Hague courtroom where former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was being tried. Unlike when he forced more than 2 million Bosnians from their homes, Milosevic was not in charge. As he ramped up his rant against the court to fever pitch, the judge simply turned off Milosevic’s microphone, leaving him gesticulating wildly and foolishly but emitting no sound.

Others met similar ends. Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, made a mockery of Spain’s indictment of him for the kidnapping, torture and killing of 2,700 people. But Chile refused to grant him immunity, and Pinochet spent the remaining years of his life being wheeled in and out of court. Following his death in December 2006, the government refused to host a state funeral or declare a national day of mourning. Charles Taylor, the former Liberian President, was indicted in 2003 for savage crimes carried out in Sierra Leone–including the arming and training of child soldiers. After the democratically elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf requested Taylor’s extradition in 2006, he was nabbed in a vehicle loaded with cash, and he didn’t put up a fight.

And yet despite such successes, international justice has gotten a bad rap over the past decade. That stems from the failure to arrest criminals like Karadzic and his military counterpart Ratko Mladic, the slow pace and steep expense of the trials at the ad-hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the delays in starting trials at the International Criminal Court (ICC). When Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor at the ICC, requested a warrant to arrest Sudan’s President Omar Bashir on charges of genocide a week before the Karadzic arrest, Moreno-Ocampo was slammed. Critics claimed the step was meaningless and that, far from deterring Bashir, it would only enrage and embolden him, making life even worse for the people of Darfur.

But instead of writing off the relatively new judicial and diplomatic tool of international justice, skeptics should heed the three important lessons that recent cases can teach.

First, while international courts may issue the initial indictments and arrest warrants, it is the local authorities–as we have seen in Serbia, Chile and Liberia and as we will eventually see in Sudan–who need to be convinced that the benefits of ridding their societies of global villains exceed the costs.

Second, those authorities are more likely to be convinced by concentrated regional action than by generic international pressure. It was African leaders like Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo who acceded to Liberia’s demand that Taylor be put behind bars, and it was the European Union that used its financial and political leverage to sway the Serbian government.

Third, and most important, international justice, when carried out, offers many benefits: it can help establish a historical record, provide dignity to victims and establish individual rather than collective responsibility so as to end cycles of violence. But the most important functions of international indictments and arrest warrants are ones that are rarely heralded: stigmatization and incapacitation of really bad people. Even to the world’s worst actors, that can be a powerful incentive to behave. It’s revealing that since the ICC issued its request for an arrest warrant, Sudan’s Bashir has improved humanitarian access to Darfur refugees, according to sources at the court. And this before he got a glimpse of his future.

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