Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander known as the “Butcher of Bosnia,” was found guilty of genocide Wednesday by a U.N. tribunal at The Hague and sentenced to life in prison. The court ruled that Mladic was partly responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the 1992–95 Bosnian war, including the killing of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica—Europe’s worst mass killing since World War II—and the deadly siege of Sarajevo during which more than 10,000 civilians were killed by shelling and sniper fire.
Mladic and former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, who was convicted last year, were the most high-profile criminals prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. (Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic died in his cell in 2006 before he could be convicted.) Today’s conviction also marks the end of the road for the tribunal, which will close up shop at the end of this year, having sentenced 83 Balkan war criminals since it opened in 1993.
The ICTY and its counterpart, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which shut down after 45 judgments in 2015, were born in an era of optimism that perpetrators of crimes against humanity could be held responsible for their actions by the international community on a regular basis. These days, that optimism is fading fast.
Last month, the International Criminal Court—a separate U.N.-backed body from the ICTY and ICTR intended to be a more universal court—suffered a blow when Burundi became the first country to formally withdraw from it. The decision followed a U.N. report accusing the country’s government of crimes against humanity. South Africa, Kenya, and the Gambia—home country of chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda—have also threatened to withdraw from the court, which is often accused of anti-African bias. All of the defendants tried by the court have been Africans, and nine of its 10 current formal investigations are on the continent. In its 15 years of operation, the court has convicted only four people.
Meanwhile, its list of high-profile failures is growing. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was indicted by the court for crimes including genocide in 2009, but the international movement to bring him to justice has more or less collapsed. Saif al-Qaddafi, son of the former leader of Libya, has been charged with crimes against humanity by the court, but his whereabouts have been unknown since he was released by the militia group that was holding him last summer. The court dropped charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2015, after his government refused to cooperate with the prosecution. Kenyatta was just re-elected.
The court’s rules make prosecutions tough to sustain. It can investigate cases only in its member states or in situations referred by the U.N. Security Council. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to ever see the inside of a Hague courtroom, since Syria is not a member of the ICC and he has the backing of Russia at the U.N. (In any case, it appears increasingly likely he’ll stay in power.) Current leaders of countries can follow Bashir’s and Kenyatta’s example by simply refusing to cooperate. There have been calls in recent days for the U.N. Security Council to refer Myanmar to the court over the mass killing of the Rohingya, but there’s nothing to compel the country’s military and political leaders to turn themselves over.
In recent days, Bensouda requested authorization from the court to investigate the U.S. military and CIA for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. The Taliban and Afghan armed forces were named as possible targets as well. The U.S. is not a member of the ICC, but Afghanistan is, so technically the court would have jurisdiction over crimes committed there, but it’s very unlikely that U.S. personnel will ever face trial. (Same for Israel, target of an ICC inquiry over alleged crimes in the Palestinian territories.)
In the end, sitting governments can generally just refuse to cooperate with the court, and it’s enormously difficult to force them to do so. As a result, the only people who have to fear international convictions for war crimes are those, like Mladic, who lost the wars in which their crimes were committed.