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War Crimes Suspect Mladic ‘Personified the Brutality’ of Bosnian Conflict

May 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Fugitive Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic, accused of the worst war crimes in Europe since WWII, was arrested in Serbia on Thursday. Margaret Warner discusses the significance of the arrest with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen Rapp and Human Rights Watch's Emma Daly.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on today’s arrest of Mr. Mladic and the significance of it, we turn to U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen Rapp. He previously served as a lead prosecutor in U.N.-sponsored war crimes trials for the African nations of Rwanda and Sierra Leone. And Emma Daly, who covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia for the British newspaper, the independent, she’s now communications director at Human Rights Watch.

Welcome to you both.

Ambassador Rapp, you have been to Serbia five times in the last 15 months. What new can you add to the circumstances of his capture?

STEPHEN RAPP, U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues: Well, that it is — that it’s a Serbian operation.

They were maintaining surveillance over the extended family. We have been in touch with them. We have been providing them with advice and assistance with the FBI. They have been meeting with us regularly to inform us on their progress, which is important, because our — our assistance to Serbia depends upon that full cooperation.

But this was a — was a situation of maintaining surveillance and finally getting the signal that this is where he was, and being able to move in on him.

MARGARET WARNER: And are you saying the FBI was actively assisting the investigation?

STEPHEN RAPP: The FBI made two visits to Serbia and — to provide advice, our Federal Bureau of Investigations actively involved in chasing down fugitives both on federal and state warrants, and could provide some technical assistance and advice about how to do that.

That wasn’t operational, however. That is just an example of what we have done to try to make this happen.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, and I want to get back to that, but let me bring in Emma Daly here.

Ms. Daly, remind us about Mladic. And how critical a figure was he in this top triumvirate, the Serb president, Milosevic, the Bosnian Serb president, Karadzic, and himself?

EMMA DALY, Human Rights Watch: Well, I think he really personified the brutality of the war.

He was a brilliant strategist in many ways, the architect of the siege of Sarajevo, of mass ethnic cleansing of villages across the country, and most famously — or infamously — of the massacre at Srebrenica.

He was really — to some in Serbian nationalist circles, he was really a folk hero. And he — he just espoused this very strong sense of — he was trying to take revenge in a way for what he saw as abuses against the Serb people in the past.

MARGARET WARNER: And so how significant would you say today’s arrest is in maybe finally beginning to close the chapter on this whole horrible event?

EMMA DALY: Oh, I think it’s extremely important. I mean, his arrest is absolutely crucial.

I think it’s extremely important, not just for his victims in Bosnia, of whom there are many. I think that they will probably feel a great sense of relief that the relatives of those who died in the war will finally get a day in court.

I think it also has a wider significance, in that it sends a message to those people who are engaged in potential atrocities right now in other countries around the world.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Rapp, going back to the circumstances leading up to this, how did he evade capture for 16 years? I mean, we saw those videos, him at a wedding, that famous one of him out skiing or walking in the snow. Was the Serb government protecting him?

STEPHEN RAPP: Well, all I can say is that, since I have been in this post and working closely with the government of President Tadic, they have been digging in and seeking — seeking his arrest, and I think turning over every stone to make it happen.

I think, prior to that time, there were situations where there wasn’t a diligent effort to find him, even a time when he was drawing a military pension. But — but, in the course of the last two years or more, there has been this effort.

And I think it’s a reflection of the fact that — that this government and the people have decided to turn this page and to move forward in Europe. It’s also because of the conditions that countries have placed on the admission of Serbia to the family of nations, particularly by the E.U.

MARGARET WARNER: To the E.U., yes.

STEPHEN RAPP: I mean this is the most important single thing for the success of the ICTY, has been the conditionality, where, for countries to move forward to candidate status, they had to — there had to be full and complete cooperation with the prosecutor and the willingness of countries to stand behind that conditionality.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Emma Daly, was there not also the threat of a negative report about to come out about the Serbs from the — was it from the prosecutor at The Hague?

EMMA DALY: Yes, he was due to address the U.N. Security Council in early June. And he was expected to report that Serbia had not been fully cooperating on the arrest of Gen. Mladic. And that was — could — could well have had negative effects on Serbia’s pursuit of the E.U. membership.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ms. Daly, take us back now and remind us the importance of the Srebrenica — both the fall of Srebrenica, which the U.N. has vowed to protect, and then this horrible massacre in which 8,000 men and boys were discovered to have been just cold-bloodedly killed.

It has been called a turning point, an historical turning point in the Bosnian War. Was it, in your view, covering it on the ground, and if so in what way?

EMMA DALY: Yes, I think it was really of critical importance.

You know, Mladic showed such contempt for the U.N. The U.N. had tried to issue various warnings. This was supposed to be a safe area. The peacekeepers were supposed to be protecting the 30,000 Muslim civilians within the enclave. And, yet, Mladic was able, over several days, just to roll in, take the peacekeepers effectively hostage.

He then rounded up the women and children. A lot of the men were trying to escape. There were these very sort of chilling scenes at the time of Mladic going, as the report said earlier, and promising people safety, you know, handing out candy to the children.

And then it took some time for us really to know what had happened. The women and children were bussed to government-held areas. No one really knew what had happened to the men. But at least 8,000 men and boys were missing.

And, gradually, a few survivors started to show up and tell stories of mass executions, mass graves, just wanton killings.

MARGARET WARNER: And — and was it…

EMMA DALY: And I think that that…

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry.

And was the — both the fall of Srebrenica and then later the discovery of these bodies, was that a turning point for the U.N. in realizing it was going to have to use more muscle?

EMMA DALY: And I think especially — and I think also for the U.S. We also have to remember that there were other things happening in the war front.

The Croatian army, for instance, was pursuing the Serbs. I think there was a sense, you know, that there was — that somethings was going to happen, that there was an endgame approaching, which I think is why Mladic wanted to take the enclave in the first place. And I think it really helped to sort of stiffen the spine and make people realize that this was it. They really had to do something. They had to act.

And NATO began its bombing campaign against Bosnia Serb military targets. And the Croatian military push also helped to, you know, bring the Serbs, the Bosnian Serbs to the position where they actually had to go to the negotiation…

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get back to the ambassador quickly, before we have to end this.

So, meanwhile, these other high-profile trials at The Hague have not gone swimmingly. I mean, Milosevic used it as sort of — to grandstand for five years, and then died in jail before it was over.

Karadzic, it has been three years, and he is still in trial. What is — is anything going to make this proceed more expeditiously and more — in a more businesslike way than those?

STEPHEN RAPP: Well, I think that international courts have learned lessons on how to do these cases.

However, when you prosecute people at a very high level that have been involved in massive criminal acts, and when you provide them with a defense to challenge every part of it, you can expect a long trial. But the Karadzic case, it just began last year and is moving forward to a conclusion.

This case will begin. We have got the ability of the — fortunately, this happened before the ICTY closed. And I think we will see justice here.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s the tribunal for Yugoslav…

STEPHEN RAPP: The Yugoslavia tribunal.

I mean, the lesson here also is that, after these crimes, where the U.N. didn’t do what — what — provide the sort of robust peacekeeping forces that could have protected people, the solution — one of the solutions was to provide for international justice.

And now we’re seeing this finally happen. And it shows that it may take a long time, but these people are brought to justice. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when. And, as — as Emma said, it’s a signal to others in the world who would commit these same atrocities that there will be justice for the victims.

MARGARET WARNER: OK.

All right. Ambassador Stephen Rapp and Emma Daly, thank you both.