On June 8, a United Nations tribunal upheld the conviction of Bosnian Serb military leader and war criminal Ratko Mladila for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the Bosnian war. The International Mechanism called upon to exercise the residual functions of The Hague Criminal Courts rejected Mladić’s appeal and thus upheld his life sentence.
World leaders welcomed the conclusion of the nine-year trial against Mladić, with US President Joe Biden saying the final judgment “shows those who commit horrific crimes will be held accountable” and “strengthens our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities “. to occur anywhere in the world ”.
While many in the West view this “justice done” as a time to turn the page, for Bosnia the wounds of war continue to fester. Mladić and a few of his associates may be behind bars, but their ideas and actions continue to shape Bosnian politics and harm the lives of Bosnians. Its greatest legacy – an ethnically cleansed autonomous entity, the Bosnian-carved Republika Srpska – lives on under the leadership of its ideological offspring and continues to be a role model for war criminals and terrorists across the world.
The legacy of the young man
Before the war, the territory that today falls within the borders of Republika Srpska was ethnically diverse, as were other parts of Bosnia, with around 30 percent of the Bosnian (Muslim) population. The genocide, however, resulted in ethnic homogeneity, with towns like Banja Luka, Prijedor, Srebrenica and Višegrad losing the vast majority of their Bosnian population.
Today at the head of Republika Srpska is Milorad Dodik, a proud genocide denier and defense witness at the trials of Mladić and the former President of Republika Srpska and convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić.
Since taking office in 2006, Dodik has systematically implemented policies aimed at making the life of Bosnians, who have returned to their homes in Republika Srpska or who wish to do so, as difficult as possible.
He claimed that the Bosnian returnees were coming to “re-occupy” what he perceives to be land legitimately belonging to the Serbs. To curb such returns, he lobbied for laws that allow the confiscation of land and property from Bosnians and Croats, who were forced to flee during the war.
Under his leadership, schools in Republika Srpska continue to deny Bosnian children the constitutional right to study in Bosnian. State institutions also discriminate against non-Serbs in employment opportunities and the provision of services.
The majority of the political elite of Republika Srpska denies the genocide and refuses to convict Mladić, Karadžić or any convicted war criminal. As recently as May this year, the entity’s legislature rejected a request by the United Nations High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, to withdraw government honors bestowed on war criminals, such as Karadžić.
Under this political leadership, there has been no repentance or even a society-wide debate about what happened during the war and convicted war criminals continue to be celebrated. Souvenir shops in the capital of Republika Srpska, Banja Luka, openly sell posters, T-shirts and mugs with their faces on, while streets and schools in many towns in Republika Srpska are named after criminals of war.
Unsurprisingly, the post-war generation – having grown up in this environment of hate – fully embraces genocide denial and Mladić’s legacy. The mayor of Banja Luka, Draško Stanivuković, a member of this generation, is a perfect example.
The 28-year-old not only refuses to call Mladić, Karadžić and other war criminals as such, but he also appears to be a fan of the fascist “Chetniks”, the Yugoslav paramilitary forces allied with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Stanivukovic’s radical views and activism have earned him much praise, including from convicted war criminal and self-proclaimed Chetnik Vojislav Šešelj.
Appeasement of war criminals
The power that Mladić’s legacy continues to hold today has a lot to do with Western appeasement policies.
Western Europe appears to have failed to learn the lesson of the late 1930s when it repeatedly gave in to Hitler’s demands, hoping that peace would only be drawn into war. Almost 60 years later, he made the same mistake in seeking to appease the warlords of Republika Srpska.
In the fall of 1995, even as the Bosnian army began to advance against Serbian forces, liberating territories that had been ethnically cleansed, the Clinton administration rushed to end the fighting.
He pushed for peace negotiations and brokered an agreement that enshrined the creation of Mladić and Karadžić, the Republika Srpska, in the Bosnian constitution, thus giving it international recognition. This move legalized and legitimized the Serbian nationalist cause and sent a strong message that the dream of a “Greater Serbia” is still alive and even achievable.
Over the next two decades, the West continued to appease those espousing genocidal ideologies. When the United States imposed sanctions on Dodik in 2017, the European Union decided not to follow suit, despite recognition of the dangerous ethnic politics the Serbian leader is playing in Republika Srpska. Over the following years, EU capitals continued to welcome Dodik on official visits, without berating him in any way for his genocide denial.
Such a display of weakness in the face of genocide ideologues questioned the integrity of Western values and sent a dangerous signal to the rest of the world that genocidal companies will not be confronted and that their leaders will only be appeased.
The sentences handed down to Bosnian Serb war criminals do not appear to have deterred atrocities. Over the past decade, acts of genocide have continued to take place around the world, with little or no response from the international community. Aspiring war criminals see Mladić’s case as a model on how to successfully legalize brutal bloodshed. Far-right terrorists, like Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant, have also felt inspired by “heroes” like Mladić and Karadžić.
In Republika Srpska, this appeasement encouraged Mladić’s supporters and discouraged any challenge to the dominant genocide denial discourse. This only compounds the dysfunction of the Bosnian state and pushes the country ever closer to political disaster or even another genocidal conflict.
It is revealing what Rajko Vasić, the architect of Dodik’s party ideology, recently said after the demolition of an Orthodox church illegally built on the land of a Bosnian woman in the village of Konjevic Polje. “In a future war, many innocent lives will perish because of this,” he wrote in a tweet.
Appeasement, as we have learned from history, only leads to war.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.