How Balkan war criminals were hunted down and brought to justice

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is the latest perpetrator to be convicted of war crimes committed during the 1990s Balkan wars. In "The Butcher's Trail," author Julian Borger examines how tough it was to hunt down those responsible for the most grotesque atrocities of the conflict. Borger sits down with chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Last Thursday, a U.N. tribunal convicted former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic of war crimes and genocide in the 1990s Balkan wars.

    A look at how tough it was to hunt down those indicted is the focus of the newest addition to the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

    Margaret Warner has that.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The genocidal crimes of the 1990s Balkan wars stunned the world, mass killings, concentration camps, systematic rape.

    Many, but by no means all of the perpetrators were the majority Serbs, starting with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. The U.N. set up an international tribunal to investigate and indict some 161 people it found most responsible.

    The challenge was to actually apprehend them. How they did so is captured in a gripping new book by Julian Borger, longtime correspondent and editor at The Guardian newspaper, titled "The Butcher's Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World's Most Successful Manhunt."

    Julian Borger, welcome.

    You open this book with a really vivid account of the capture of the last of these criminals in a forest in Serbia. Who was he and what had he done?

    JULIAN BORGER, Author, "The Butcher's Trail": He was Goran Hadzic.

    And he used to run a Serb statelet inside Croatia which had been carved out of Croatia by what was called ethnic cleansing, a euphemism for mass killing of other ethnicities. So he had overseen that killing on a large scale.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And you had a particularly horrible example, more than 260 men and boys taken to the forest and just executed.

  • JULIAN BORGER:

    Yes, that was the Vukovar massacre, and that was the first large-scale massacre since the Nazi era. So it came as a complete shock to Europe.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So you covered these wars. How typical was Hadzic in terms of the perpetrators? In other words, what did you discover about what drove these people into the most grotesque, kind of savage brutality?

  • JULIAN BORGER:

    A lot of them, a lot of the people who rose to prominence and ended up indicted war criminals, as war criminals, came from very ordinary backgrounds.

    And I think the lesson that I learned by going through their life stories is that there are these people all around us. And when a permissive atmosphere is created in which that they can rule the roost, then it creates the conditions for which these kind of mass murders can take part.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And how much of it was driven by ethnic hatreds? I mean, you had Christian Serbs and Croats against Bosnian Muslims, but also against each other, vs. just being perpetrated by outright psychopaths?

  • JULIAN BORGER:

    It was perpetrated by political leaders.

    It was political leaders who in the — with the aim of expanding their territory and consolidating their own power set one ethnic group against another and brought nationalism to the fore as a replacement for communism, which was in collapse. And so they offered something that seemed visceral and certain. And they drove this largely for their own political motives.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What's really, truly groundbreaking about this book is what it took to apprehend them.

    The International Tribunal headed by a Canadian judge, Louise Arbour, didn't get much help apprehending them from this NATO stabilization force that was, the U.S., the Brits, et cetera. Why not?

  • JULIAN BORGER:

    Well, when the NATO went in, initially as a peacekeeping force, all it wanted to do was keep the peace. It didn't want to do any other tasks that might be risky, that might risk upsetting the peace. They called it mission creep.

    It's hard now to look back at that time before 9/11 and remember how casualty-averse, how risk-averse the U.S. military, the British military were. It was said, if you were a general officer at that time, you were unlikely to get another star if you had casualties under your watch.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    You managed to get those who did hunt these men down to talk you, for the first time really that they ever had.

    If you could sum it up, who were they?

  • JULIAN BORGER:

    It was a shifting cast of characters involved, diplomats, special forces from six nations altogether, intelligence agencies from others.

    But the first one is an interesting arrest, the first arrest specifically for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, which was kind of an international pickup team, working for the U.N. that involved an American diplomat general, an American prosecutor, a British policeman, a Czech homicide detective, and a newly formed Polish special forces unit that had only a few years been on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain.

    And, together, they did something that NATO at that time was afraid of doing. They took a risk in order to carry out the U.N. mandate to make an arrest. And that really broke the — opened the floodgates.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What did it take to get these guys? Some of them were hiding in plain sight.

  • JULIAN BORGER:

    They knew where they were. And it was just a question of getting them to a place where there was unlikely to be collateral damage, passersby would be hurt.

    So it was a question of following them, often in their cars, stopping the car, ripping them out, the kind of scenes that have since become familiar after Bosnia in the form of renditions.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Rendition.

  • JULIAN BORGER:

    These were the kind of early forms of rendition. The important difference is, they were underpinned by Security Council resolutions and a body of international law.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Jumping forward, did this have any deterrent effect, the success of these apprehensions and so many of them brought to justice? I mean, we see mass atrocities of civilians now going on in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, and the perpetrators don't seem at all afraid of being prosecuted.

  • JULIAN BORGER:

    Well, I think this manhunt represented the high watermark in terms of enforcement of international humanitarian law, and I think it pushed back the boundaries of impunity for these kinds of mass crimes.

    But I think, since that manhunt, that achievement has been allowed to unravel. The Hague War Crimes Tribunal had international support. Its permanent successor, the International Criminal Court, hasn't had that support from the big powers, from the U.S., from Russia or China and India.

    And because of that, it doesn't have that clout. It hasn't been able to enforce its judgments. And I think the consequences is the return of impunity. And we see the results of that now in the Middle East, in Syria, in Iraq, where terrorism has had its roots in mass crimes committed by regimes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, a very disappointing result.

    Julian Borger, author of "The Butcher's Trail," thank you.

  • JULIAN BORGER:

    Thank you.

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