Karadzic arrest not simply an issue of revenge

Radovan Karadzic was on the run for 13 years Keystone

The arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has brought up a series of questions relating to Europe's worst massacre since the Second World War.

This content was published on July 23, 2008 - 09:15

swissinfo talked to political scientist Thomas Fleiner to try to find out what the arrest of Karadzic means in practice.

The law professor has acted as an advisor to the Serbian government.

Karadzic, who was arrested on Monday, had been on the run for more than a decade, eluding the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Swiss lawyer Carla Del Ponte.

swissinfo: The new government in Belgrade has not been in office very long and already the suspected war criminal Radovan Karadzic has been arrested. Did the previous government of Vojislav Kostunica hinder the arrest?

Thomas Fleiner: I do not know about that. I never spoke to Kostunica on this issue.

What surprises me is that a coalition has formed of democrats under Boris Tadic and the socialists, the former party of Milosevic. This party was very much associated with war crimes – or at least Milosevic was.

swissinfo: What does the arrest mean for this coalition?

T.F.: I do not know to what extent conditions that were made with the Americans and the Europeans will be respected. All of a sudden there are entry visas into the United States for some tycoons that were not possible before.

Some of these tycoons, who became rich under the former president, Slobodan Milosevic, can now travel in the United States because the ban on travel after the formation of the coalition has been lifted.

swissinfo: And what does the arrest mean for the victims of the war?

T.F.: It is very important for the war victims. It's not a question of revenge but the conviction that in spite of everything there is still some justice, and that culprits will be brought to account for their crimes.

swissinfo: How likely is it that the chief of staff of the Bosnian Serb army, Ratko Mladic, will now be arrested?

T.F.: It is very possible. I assume he will now behave much more cautiously.

swissinfo: Carla Del Ponte, the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, accused the US and Europe of hindering the arrest of Karadzic. Are the US and Europe also to blame for the fact that it took so long to arrest Karadzic?

T.F.: Possibly because they were concerned that Karadzic might say things in a trial that they did not want to hear.

swissinfo: What consequences does the arrest have for political stability in the Balkan region?

T.F.: I believe that in the long term, the arrest is extremely important. But you also have to be aware that other war criminals, such as the former Kosovo prime minister and leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Ramush Haradinaj, who many Serbs see as having committed similar crimes, were acquitted by the tribunal in The Hague from lack of evidence.

If the tribunal cannot demonstrate an ability to treat all war criminals in the same way, this arrest [of Karadzic] will have no benefits for stability and in particular for the credibility of a constitutional state.

swissinfo: Why does Karadzic still enjoy support from a large part of the Serb population?

T.F.: One side's war criminal is the other side's war hero. That is always the case with war criminals in the Balkans. It is certainly the case for other warring sides in the former Yugoslavia.

Why, for example, do many Americans still support the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It's because of a false idea of a just war.

Only when people recognise that there can be no justifiable war and that the so-called collateral damage of war is just as criminal, will we begin to understand that national war leaders can also be war criminals.

Tensions can arise when one side feels completely unjustly treated.

swissinfo: Can one compare Hiroshima with Serbia?

T.F.: This comparison shows how one-sided the situation is being judged. I am against one set of people simply being accused of guilt. What is forgotten is that all people have had their problems in history.

swissinfo: Is the arrest of Karadzic a sign that Serbia has to some extent dealt with its wartime past?

T.F.: Dealing with the past is not simply a question of two or three months. This will take much longer in Serbia.

It also depends on how transparent and honest all other warring parties, including the US and Europe, manage the past conflict with Yugoslavia.

As long as the West is not prepared to admit its guilt, it has no claim or right to ask that others admit their guilt.

swissinfo: And to what extent does Serbia now admit its guilt?

T.F.: The media should at long last recognise that you cannot put the blame on one side and not the other. And you cannot blame a whole nation or a state. Many Serbs put their lives at risk in fighting against Milosevic. This is also part of the truth and has to be recognised.

swissinfo-interview: Corinne Buchser

Radovan Karadzic

Born in Savnik, Yugoslavia, in what is now the Republic of Montenegro, Karadzic became a founding member of the Serbian Democratic Party in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1990.

Two years later, he was elected president of the three-person presidency of the Serbian republic in Bosnia, which had just been recognised as an independent state by the United Nations.

He became sole president of the Serb Republic in Bosnia that year, remaining in that position until 1996 and also serving as supreme commander of the armed forces.

His life changed when the war ended in late 1995 with an estimated 250,000 people dead and another 1.8 million driven from their homes. He was indicted twice by the UN tribunal on genocide charges stemming from his alleged crimes against Bosnia's Muslims and Croats.

Karadzic's reported hide-outs included Serbian Orthodox monasteries and refurbished mountain caves in remote eastern Bosnia. Some newspaper reports said he had at times disguised himself as a priest by shaving off his trademark silver mane and donning a brown cassock. Others said he wore women's wigs.

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Thomas Fleiner

Thomas Fleiner has been a professor of constitutional and administrative law at Fribourg University since 1971.

In 1984, he helped create the university's federalism institute and is still its director.

His lectures include aspects of humanitarian law, the theory of federalism and legal aspects of ethnic conflicts.

Fleiner has been a visiting professor among others at universities in Jerusalem, Belgrade, Leuven, New York and Istanbul.

He has also served as an expert for the Swiss government and the Council of Europe.

More recently, he was an adviser to the Serbian government's negotiation team on the status of Kosovo.

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