With accused war criminal Ratko Mladic's arrest, guest columnist Peter Lippman notes that 16 years is a long time to wait for justice to be served. He assesses the likelihood of whether justice can really be achieved.

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ACCUSED war criminal Ratko Mladic, the most wanted man in Europe, has finally been arrested in Serbia. During the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gen. Mladic was chief of staff of the Bosnian Serb army. This secessionist force committed a long list of horrifying crimes against humanity. As commander, Mladic bears responsibility for the displacement and suffering of millions of Bosnians. Sixteen years was a long time to wait for justice to be served.

In fact, Thursday’s arrest had much more to do with political expediency for Serbia than with justice. The apprehension of Mladic and other fugitives, as part of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), has been a condition for granting Serbia’s candidate status for membership in the European Union. Just this week, tribunal prosecutor Serge Brammertz submitted a very negative report to the United Nations on Serbia’s cooperation, thereby creating a gloomy picture of Serbia’s prospects for early EU accession.

In the pinch, Serbia arrested the “Butcher of the Balkans,” who was moving freely around Serbia until a few years ago. Indeed, Mladic was a Serbian army official until 2002, and he drew a pension until 2005. Regular pronouncements by high Serbian officials to the effect that they were “doing all they could” to locate the fugitive now appear to have been empty promises, in light of his quick arrest under pressure.

Mladic was indicted by the tribunal for genocide, persecution, crimes against humanity, inflicting terror on civilians and other war crimes. Specifically, these include preparation of the massacre of more than 8,000 men and boys upon the fall of Srebrenica; the nearly four-year siege of Sarajevo during which more than 10,000 were killed; and the mass expulsion (“ethnic cleansing”) of non-Serbs throughout the part of Bosnia-Herzegovina under Serb control.

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The war resulted in the displacement of around half of Bosnia’s 4.4 million population and the death of more than 100,000 Bosnians. The massacre at Srebrenica left some 6,500 Bosniak (Muslim) women as widows. No one caught up in that massive war crime survived without losing a father, a brother, a husband, or a son. One of the survivors told me, “The biggest pain you can have in life is to lose someone you gave birth to.”

Today the victims of the Srebrenica massacre are still being exhumed from mass graves scattered around eastern Bosnia. The survivors, while relieved that Mladic was finally arrested, are wondering why it took so long.

The arrest will probably improve Serbia’s prospects for EU accession. But Europe should beware what kind of country it is receiving. A true process of “de-Nazification” (as called for by some Serbian human-rights activists) has never taken place in Serbia. And recent surveys show that between 50 and 70 percent of respondents there would not have turned Mladic in. Clearly, there is progress to be made in educating the Serbian public as to the behavior of its leaders in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, can there be justice for Bosnia, tormented during the war and legally partitioned at the end by the Dayton peace agreement? Events are not headed in that direction, as the wartime profiteers and separatists, and their political heirs, still hold the upper hand in Bosnian politics.

Chief among these is Milorad Dodik, president of the Serb-controlled half of the country. Dodik continually orchestrates crises that push the country ever closer to dissolution. Bosnian Croat nationalists and Bosniak opportunists of all stripes effectively cooperate in the chaotic administration of a dysfunctional state — and hapless international officials are unprepared to exert any influence to resolve the situation.

The long-delayed arrest of Mladic simply highlights the saying that “justice delayed is justice denied,” as the survivors of war go on suffering without recourse, and the nationalists continue to enrich themselves in peacetime as in war.

Peter Lippman, a native of Seattle, speaks Serbo-Croatian fluently and since 1981 has visited and lived in the former Yugoslavia for extended periods. Other writings can be found at: http://www.glypx.com/BalkanWitness/journal.htm