The United States joined European allies and human rights groups in welcoming the arrest in Serbia on Thursday of Balkans war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic. Balkan experts say they hope the arrest will be followed by reform of the Serbian security services, elements of which may have sheltered Mladic.
U.S. reaction was led by President Barack Obama, who in a written statement applauded the Serbian government of President Boris Tadic for what he called its “determined efforts” to ensure that Mladic was found and faces justice.
Obama called it an important day for the families of Mladic’s victims, for Serbia, Bosnia, the United States and for international justice.
Mladic, the Bosnian-Serb military chief, led Serb forces at the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, the most notorious incident of the Balkans war.
State Department Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said the arrest, albeit delayed, shows that international justice works.
“This is a warning to all those around the globe who would target innocent civilians that there’s no place to hide," he said. "I don’t know if there’s ever closure. But for those who have suffered from his terrible crimes, including the genocide at Srebrenica, this hopefully provides them with some level of closure. And again, it’s important that Serbia has dealt with this individual, and it shows the seriousness about European integration.”
The arrest of Mladic, indicted for genocide and war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the ICTY, was welcomed as “a major step towards justice” by Amnesty International.
Human Rights Watch said the arrest shows that no one is beyond the reach of the law.
The director of New York-based rights group’s international justice program, Richard Dicker, called Mladic the “personification of brutality” in the Balkans war.
Dicker said Mladic “undoubtedly” had support networks in Serbia, and paid tribute to the late Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, assassinated in 2003, for beginning a drive against war crimes figures and their supporters.
He told VOA that radical Serb nationalists now have “lost the upper hand” in Belgrade and said he hopes in the wake of the Mladic arrest that the Tadic government can lead Serbia back to the European mainstream.
“It’s an extremely significant step helping Serbia make the transition from the horrors of the Milosevic era to fully integrating into Europe and becoming a state where the rule of law and human rights are respected," said Dicker. "So it’s a significant step in that direction.”
Daniel Serwer was a State Department envoy in Bosnia at the time of the Srebrenica massacre and is now senior fellow at Washington’s Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
He called the arrest very welcome but also “very convenient” for the Serbian government of President Tadic - coinciding with a Belgrade visit by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and coming a few days before a report by the war crimes tribunal on Serbian cooperation.
Serwer said the arrest boosts the political position of Tadic and said he hopes Tadic takes advantage of the gains to reform the country’s security services.
“It strengthens Tadic’s hand inside Serbia," he said. "And I very much hope that he’ll use this strength, as he indicated he would, to look for those who helped Mladic, and to clean up the security services of Serbia, which remain largely unreformed since the fall of [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic.”
Dicker said the book on Balkans war crimes is still not closed, with Croatian Serb Goran Hadzic remaining at large, and other ICTY trials still not completed.
Hadzic is charged with war crimes for his alleged role in persecuting Croat and other non-Serb civilians in the early 1990’s in a Croatian region controlled by Serb rebels.