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Why the war crimes conviction of Radovan Karadzic matters

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity by a UN tribunal Thursday for his role in atrocities during the Bosnian civil war. James Mates of Independent Television News reports, while Judy Woodruff talks with former State Department official Nicholas Burns and David Rohde, author of “Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica.”

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Today was a day of reckoning for the former Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who faced verdict in The Hague for his actions during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s.

    We begin with this report from James Mates of Independent Television News.

    The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is now in session.

  • JAMES MATES:

    The wheels of international justice may turn painfully slowly, but they do still turn, and at least some of those leaders who commit crimes against humanity one day pay a price.

    It's 24 years since this man, Radovan Karadzic, embarked on a brutal war in Bosnia. He was the leader of the Bosnian Serbs who ordered the siege of Sarajevo; 21 years ago, men under his command murdered 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, the worst act of genocide since World War II.

  • MAN:

    Mr. Karadzic, could you please stand?

  • JAMES MATES:

    Today, he was cleared of one charge of genocide, but that did nothing to mitigate the list of crimes he was convicted of.

  • MAN:

    Count two, genocide. Count three, persecution of crimes against humanity. Count four, extermination, a crime against humanity. Count five, murder, the crime against humanity.

  • JAMES MATES:

    The sentence for these and six more counts means this 65-year-old should die in jail.

  • MAN:

    To a single sentence of 40, 4-0, years of imprisonment.

  • JAMES MATES:

    Survivors, relatives and victims of Karadzic filed out of the courtroom having watched the verdict, among them a man who had been imprisoned in one of the camps first revealed to the world by ITV News back in 1992. He was happy, but the acquittal on one of the two charges of genocide hurt badly.

  • SATKO MUJUGIC, Survivor:

    But the 11th one was about genocide in (INAUDIBLE) where I come and other municipalities back in 1992, in the time when actually whole process of genocide started and ended with Srebrenica.

  • JAMES MATES:

    Karadzic's lawyer emerged to say his client continued to maintain his innocence and would appeal.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    We take a closer look at the significance of today's conviction of the Serbian leader with Nicholas Burns. He was a State Department spokesman during the conflict in Bosnia. He went on to become undersecretary of state for political affairs. He is now at Harvard university. And David Rohde covered the war in Bosnia for The Christian Science Monitor. He's the author of the book "Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica: Europe's Worst Massacre Since World War II." He's now and editor at Reuters.

    And we welcome both of you.

    First of all, Nicholas Burns, remind us. This was a period almost a quarter-century ago. This is a small corner of Europe. Remind us who Radovan Karadzic was and what happened.

  • NICHOLAS BURNS, Former State Department Official:

    Well, Judy, he was the leader of the Bosnian Serbs. He led that community and its parliament.

    This was a war by the Bosnian Serbs to conquer the Bosnian Muslims, to combat the Croat community, the Slovenian community as Yugoslavia broke up. The Serbs wanted to create a greater Serbia. And Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the general, the leading general of the Bosnian Serbs, led a vicious campaign.

    That war took 100,000 lives at least, 2.5 million refugees, and it culminated in this great, great tragedy at Srebrenica in July 1995, when the Bosnian Serbs, under Karadzic's orders, murdered 8,000 Muslim men and boys in two-and-a-half days in a soccer stadium. And that was the worst massacre in Europe since the Nazis.

    It galvanized the United States and Europe to act, because we had not acted sufficiently between '91 and '95. And it led to the U.S. air campaign in September and October of that year, and it led to the Dayton peace talks. And that's where the peace was made. So this was a significant event in the history of Europe.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    David Rohde, as a reporter, who covered that war, what would you add?

  • DAVID ROHDE, Author, Endgame:

    The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica: I would just say, in a sense, this is the largest verdict, the largest war crimes verdict in Europe since the Nuremberg trials.

    Karadzic is the highest-level civilian official who will face justice, who has faced justice. Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia, would have been, but he died in captivity. So, it's an enormous verdict. I was here in New York today, and by chance, the hostess at a restaurant I was at was a Bosnian American, a Bosnian Muslim, and she burst into tears talking about, you know, the fact that this verdict had come down and he had been convicted of genocide.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, David Rohde, staying with you — again, you covered that war. What does it mean to you, as somebody who saw much of this on the ground?

  • DAVID ROHDE:

    Well, it's accountability.

    There was a sense for years as the war dragged on, as Nic said, 100,000 people were killed, and NATO and the U.N. kept — and the international community said they were going to act, but they didn't act. And there was a sense that that emboldened the Bosnian Serbs to do this.

    And the real tragedy of Srebrenica, the town itself, it wasn't simply that the world didn't act. Srebrenica was declared a United Nations protected safe area. U.N. peacekeepers went in and they actually took away the heavier weapons that Bosnian Muslims in the surrounding town of Srebrenica had. And they promised that the U.N. and NATO would protect them.

    The Bosnian Muslims, with less weaponry then, weren't protected, the town was overrun, and, again, 8,000 men and boys systematically executed.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Nicholas Burns, why does it matter that 20 — again, almost a quarter-of-a-century later, someone like Radovan Karadzic is held accountable?

  • NICHOLAS BURNS:

    Well, Judy, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That's what Martin Luther King said. And he obviously was right. Justice has been done here.

    This was genocide against an entire people, against a Muslim population, and it took 21 very painful, very frustrating, long years for justice to work. But it has. And so this war crimes tribunal is very important, as has been the war crimes tribunal in Rwanda, where there was a genocide as well the year before.

    And we in positions of power, the United States and other countries, have to see justice as a very important priority for us and have to see peace as an important priority. So I think it's very important that these efforts continue and that the United States continues to support them.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    David Rohde, how, looking back, does one explain what happened here? This was, what, 50 years after World War II, the Holocaust in Germany. How do you explain something like this, this ethnic cleansing, genocide that took place?

  • DAVID ROHDE:

    Well, it was disturbing. My time speaking to Bosnian Serb soldiers about this, they saw themselves as the victim of some sort of giant Muslim conspiracy to take over Europe, and that they had to act this way to save Europe.

    And they were deluded, but, again, they were abetted by a failure to act. We see the consequences of that in Syria today. It's not that the West has to necessarily act, but it can't promise to act. It can't, you know, call for President Assad to step down in Syria, and then not follow up on those promises.

    So, the real lesson of all this is to not promise to bring justice, to not promise to sort of remove a brutal leader and then to not act. That's the mistake. If we're going to do nothing, say nothing. But it's the raising the expectations and doing nothing that then emboldens the perpetrators of these crimes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Nicholas Burns, why did the U.S. and other nations wait so long to get involved here?

  • NICHOLAS BURNS:

    I think, on the part of the United States and the part of President George H.W. Bush and then Bill Clinton, this was a job that they thought the Europeans would handle.

    The Europeans took this opportunity to say, we will be the ones that will lead here. They were incapable of doing that, unfortunately. The United Nations and the Europeans did not have a significant enough mission.

    What really turned this whole war was that massacre at Srebrenica. I think, Judy, it shamed the United States, it shamed Europe into acting. And we had two things that ended this war. It was the decision by President Clinton — and he was right — to use military force, an air campaign against the Bosnian Serbs in September and October of 1995, and then the brilliant diplomacy of the late Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke.

    It was his will, his determination to see a peace made at Dayton that I think was the singular factor that that war ended. And we should pay tribute to Ambassador Holbrooke, to Dick Holbrooke, and remember him today.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, David Rohde, what does this verdict mean, if anything, for the people of Bosnia today?

  • DAVID ROHDE:

    To be frank, it's not a great situation in Bosnia today.

    There's a sense that the international community has shifted away from there. There's a need to sort of reform the constitution that was created after the Dayton accords. And there's concern that if not — if there isn't more engagement there, there could be more division.

    The current leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, just recently as last week dedicated a new dormitory for university students. That dormitory is named after Radovan Karadzic, the man convicted of genocide today. So we have to keep our eye on Bosnia and follow through, huge step forward today, but more work to do.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we thank both of you very much for reminding us of the significance of all of this.

    David Rohde, Nicholas Burns, we thank you both.

  • NICHOLAS BURNS:

    Thank you.

  • DAVID ROHDE:

    Thank you.

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