x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Mladic arrest closes a long, sorry chapter

After 16 years, the capture of the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic is a long overdue success, but no triumph for justice.

Ratko Mladic, the one-time Bosnian Serb general facing a string of war-crimes charges after the Balkan savagery of the 1990s, has been arrested. This is a success, though it is no triumph, for justice.

Mladic will be tried, eventually, in The Hague, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where his former boss Radovan Karadzic has been on trial since 2009.

The mills of the ICTY grind slow - Karadzic's trial is said to be only one-fifth completed - but they grind exceedingly fine; in the tribunal's 12 years more than 160 cases have come to court, and most have produced convictions, mainly of Serbs but also of war criminals from every other faction in the ethnic and religious warfare that ripped the former Yugoslavia apart. By the ICTY's tally, just under 105,000 people - 68,000 of them Muslims - were killed in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995.

Mladic was wanted principally in relation to the horror of Srebrenica, a town in north-east Bosnia that was supposed to be a safe haven protected by UN peacekeepers. But in July 1995 Bosnian Serbs commanded by Mladic swept aside 400 Dutch UN troops without a fight and moved in. More than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were taken away and murdered. The ICTY ruled in 2004 that this constituted criminal genocide.

Serbian nationalism has a long history, both triumphalist and truculent; Karadzic and Mladic "hid" probably with the help from well-placed friends. War-crimes cases in Bosnia's courts are still reportedly being stalled by intimidation of witnesses and political bluster by ethnic Serbs.

But things change. Serbia now wants into the European Union. Just yesterday morning a news report said that the ICTY was ready to tell the UN that "Serbia's efforts to apprehend [Mladic and another man] have not been sufficient" - a finding that might have been fatal to the EU bid.

But then Boris Tadic, the Serbian president, announced Mladic's arrest. Somewhat to his credit, Tadic has taken some steps to expiate the crimes of the 1990s; last year he showed up at a Srebrenica reburial ceremony, speaking of building trust.

After almost 16 years at liberty, then, and perhaps mainly because the political stakes are now so high for Serbia, Mladic has been caught. This is no triumph of pure justice, but it's surely better than no justice at all.