Perspectives | BiH

What’s the significance of a Karadžić verdict?

By - 19.03.2019

A refresher on the case against the wartime president of Republika Srpska.

In 2016, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) issued its first instance verdict against Radovan Karadžić, the wartime leader of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

He was found guilty of 10 charges, including the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of violations of the laws or customs of war. He was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment.

On the count of genocide in “the municipalities” — referring to the Autonomous Region of Krajina, the Sarajevo region, and eastern BiH — in 1992, he was found not guilty.

Indictments against Karadžić

The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) indicted Radovan Karadžić for the first time in July 1995, but he was arrested only in July 2008 after years spent in hiding masquerading as a spiritual healer. The trial started in 2009 and finished in 2014.

Karadžić stood accused of two counts of genocide (Counts 1 and 2), five counts of crimes against humanity — persecutions (Count 3), extermination (Count 4), murder (Count 5), deportation (Count 7), inhumane acts (forcible transfer) (Count 8) — and four counts of violations of the laws or customs of war — murder (Count 6), terror (Count 9), unlawful attacks on civilians (Count 10), taking of hostages (Count 11).

Both the prosecution and the defense have appealed the verdict; the prosecution is asking for a conviction on the first count of genocide while the defense is calling for Karadžić to be acquitted of all charges.

Although there is good ground for the prosecution’s request, the appeals chamber is not likely to grant it. It would be unusual for the judges to make new precedent in their final case, and the judges that are most adventurous in their interpretation of the law are not on the case.

The defense has made several arguments for acquittal, of which one could be plausible: the argument that the fairness of the trial was undermined by the slow sharing of evidence. The rest of the defense arguments are meritless.

The most probable outcome is that the appeals chamber will confirm the decision of the trial chamber. Another issue is the sentence, which the prosecution argues was excessively lenient. The judges may or may not change the sentence, but this is an issue of mostly symbolic importance.

You can read the Karadžić verdict here. It’s 2,615 pages, so make yourself comfortable and set aside some time. If you haven’t got the time, here are a few questions and answers that I published immediately after the initial verdict back in 2016.

There was no genocide before 1995, really?

The most discussed fact about the Karadžić case is that he was convicted at all. The second-most discussed fact is that he was acquitted on the first genocide count, for systematic killings in 1991 and 1992 in “the municipalities.”

Some commentators are interpreting this acquittal as a denial of facts. This is untrue. The judges accepted the facts and described them in hundreds of pages of horrific detail. What they concluded is that the facts amount not to genocide, but to multiple crimes against humanity.

How did they do this? Let’s begin with the crimes against humanity.

Karadžić was found guilty of six crimes against humanity in “the municipalities”: persecution, extermination, murder, deportation, forcible transfer, and “other inhumane acts” including rape and sexual violence. These crimes resulted from “intentional actions” (paragraph 2,449) of the forces he controlled, and represented “a clear pattern of widespread intimidation, violence, killings, and expulsions targeted at the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats” (paragraph 2,623).

Sounds a lot like genocide, doesn’t it? Well, the judges gave two reasons for saying no.

The crimes had major and lasting effects to the degree that “the scale and extent of the expulsions and movement of the civilians from the Municipalities, including the Count 1 Municipalities, resulted in the displacement of a vast number of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats and in drastic changes to the ethnic composition of towns with almost no Bosnian Muslim remaining there” (paragraph 2,624).

They were not incidental, but “Having regard to the clear systematic and organised pattern of crimes which were committed in each of the Municipalities by members of the Serb Forces, over a short time period, the Chamber finds that these crimes were not committed in a random manner, but were committed in a co-ordinated fashion” (paragraph 3,445).

Consequently, “the Chamber finds beyond reasonable doubt that between October 1991 and 30 November 1995 there existed a common plan to permanently remove Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb claimed territory through the crimes” (paragraph 3,447).

Sounds a lot like genocide, doesn’t it? Well, the judges gave two reasons for saying no.

The first was that although some elements of crimes for genocide were demonstrated, including killing and causing serious bodily harm, one other was not. Despite affirming extensive evidence that showed levels of abuse, mistreatment, starvation, neglect and deliberate creation of high risk, the judges determined that the conditions in detention facilities did not reach the level that they could conclude that they were “calculated to bring about the physical destruction” of the group (paragraph 2,587).

The second reason is probably the more important one. This involves the question of whether Karadžić had “specific intent” to commit genocide. Intent is the element that makes genocide most difficult to prove.

For example, regarding the genocide in Srebrenica — on which there already exists a judicial record, and for which Karadžić was convicted in Count 2 — the judges established his intent by following the timeline of events and his activities very closely, and determining that he only began to share the “specific intent” once the killing was already under way, based on a conversation with an operational commander that took place on 13 July 1995.

Here is the transcript of the conversation:

: I’m waiting for a call to President Karadžić. Is he there?

B: Yes.

: Hello! Just a minute, the duty officer will answer now, Mr. President.

B: Hello! I have Deronjić on line.

: Deronjić, speak up.

D: Hello! Yes. I can hear you.

: Deronjić, the President is asking how many thousands?

D: About two for the time being.

: Two, Mr. President. (heard in the background)

D: But there’ll be more during the night.


D: Can you hear me, President?

: The President can’t hear you, Deronjić, this is the intermediary.

D: I have about two thousand here now by […]

: Deronjić, the President says: “All the goods must be placed inside the warehouses before twelve tomorrow.”

D: Right.

: Deronjić, not in the warehouses over there, but somewhere else.

D: Understood.

: Goodbye.

Ham-fisted coding aside, what Karadžić is asking Deronjić to do in this exchange is to take civilian prisoners from Bratunac, where they were being held, to Zvornik, where they would be murdered. In the judges’ opinion this exchange marks the emergence of agreement between Karadžić and the military commanders that the theme had changed to “where — not whether — the detainees were to be killed” (paragraph 5,805), and consequently the beginning of his personal engagement in the action to commit genocide.

To find genocidal intent the judges did not ask “does it make sense?” but rather “is it the only reasonable inference that can be made?” This is an indication of how very high the threshold for a conviction on charges of genocide is.

The marked specificity of the conversation derives from the high standard for conviction. To find genocidal intent the judges did not ask “Does it make sense?” but rather, “Is it the only reasonable inference that can be made?” This is an indication of how very high the threshold for a conviction on charges of genocide is.

So what did they find on intent on Count 1?

Paragraphs 2,596 and 2,597 affirm the character of the nationalist ideology that sought to create an ethnically homogeneous state. But they determine that the inference remains open that this goal could be achieved by methods other than killing.

Similarly with inflammatory statements and threats to “exterminate,” “annihilate” and so forth: In paragraph 2,599 the verdict determines that these threats might be hyperbolic figures of speech and that the judges are “not convinced that the only reasonable inference to draw from these statements is that the respective speakers intended to physically destroy” the groups.

Probably the key passage explaining the judges’ decisions that the crimes in “the municipalities” did not constitute genocide is in paragraph 3,466: “The Chamber is of the view that another reasonable inference available on the evidence is that while the Accused did not intend for these other crimes to be committed, he did not care enough to stop pursuing the common plan to forcibly remove the non-Serb population from the Municipalities. While the Chamber considers that these other crimes resulted from the campaign to forcibly remove the non-Serb population from the Municipalities, the Chamber does not find them to be an intended part of the common plan.”

That was the argument in legal context. Outside of the legal context, what the judges found was yes, the goal of Republika Srpska was to create an ethnically homogeneous state by forcibly changing the population, but they thought that they could do it without killing.

The fact that they did kill does not mean that they believed they had to do killing. Take the argument for what it is worth.

It is probably worth the most as an example of the difference between legal reasoning and every other kind of reasoning. It is most likely also an indication that, at least at this early stage, judges are very reluctant to declare findings of a genocide.

Is the acquittal on Count 1 a victory for Karadžić?

To a degree, yes, in the sense that he was acquitted. But the factual findings are extensive and point to a large scale series of crimes, planned and coordinated at the highest political level.

There are two groups of people who are likely to be interested in the distinction between a finding of crimes against humanity and a finding of genocide: 1) lawyers, and 2) politically active people seeking to build political capital out of the presence or absence of the latter label. Their motivations and interests are not the same, are probably not commensurable with one another and are generally not helpful to people outside of the communities that bicker about them.

Those decisions are artefacts of what a particular set of judges were prepared to do at a particular moment in social and political history, at a particular stage of the development of their profession.

Crimes against humanity are not minor crimes, and not necessarily lesser crimes than genocide. It is meaningful that, on the basis of facts established at the trial, Karadžić was convicted of major crimes, even if the conviction was not for every count for which it was sought.

Beyond this, though, in the end what will matter the most about the verdicts of the tribunal (the well reasoned and documented ones, that is) will not be the decisions that are described in them. Those decisions are artefacts of what a particular set of judges were prepared to do at a particular moment in social and political history, at a particular stage of the development of their profession.

What will matter about the verdicts will be the documentary record that they establish and their contribution to affirming the existence of facts.

Why did he not get a life sentence?

The sentence given to Karadžić is the product of the judges trying to balance the “gravity of crimes” for which he was convicted against the “mitigating circumstances” they are obligated to consider.

Nothing was considered as an aggravating circumstance. This may be because some of the potential aggravating circumstances in this case are attributable not to Karadžić but  public office under political pressure in 1996 (the judges remained agnostic as to whether this was a consequence of the so-called “Holbrooke Agreement,” and the much-loved actor Hal Holbrook appears to have been unwilling to testify), and the fact that “in a few instances, the Accused expressed his regret” (paragraph 6,059). His age was also taken as a mitigating circumstance.

ICTY sentencing is also bound by the sentencing practices that prevailed in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), which for these crimes were vague — the judges note that “Article 141 of the SFRY Criminal Code prohibited genocide, Article 142 prohibited war crimes against the civilian population, Article 143 prohibited war crimes against the wounded and sick, and Article 144 prohibited war crimes against prisoners of war. The offences under Articles 141, 142, 143 and 144 of the SFRY Criminal Code were punishable by imprisonment for not less than five years or by the death penalty” (paragraph 6,042).

So “something between five years and death” gives a lot of leeway, particularly in the absence of previous experience.

We might add here that a 40-year sentence (minus credit for eight years time served making 32 years, minus the “Meron bonus” of automatic release after serving two thirds of the sentence making 19 years) does not necessarily mean less prison time than a “life sentence.” A life sentence does not actually mean that the prisoner will be held until death. This is because unless you are a soldier in one of the units commanded by Karadžić, you do not know when other people will die.

So the life sentence is generally interpreted as carrying an arbitrary maximum determined by such factors as life expectancy and, in the case of the ICTY, the notoriously lenient sentencing procedures of SFRJ. So these factors could in fact make a “life sentence” considerably shorter than the 19 years anticipated for Karadžić.

In that sense, it could be said that the fact that Karadžić did not receive a life sentence has mostly symbolic meaning. This is compounded by the fact that the likelihood that he will live another 19 years is statistically low.

But — to say that something has a symbolic meaning is not the same as to say that it has no meaning. In the first place, there is an obvious disjunction between the extreme gravity of the offences and the limited sentence. In the second place, symbolic issues are the issues on which people (everywhere, but particularly in the region) are least willing to give ground.

Should people be satisfied?

So, is the tribunal pro-Serbian, anti-Serbian, moderate on Klingons, or what? It is none of those things, and any of the — many — people who are saying that the verdict is a verdict on some abstractly conceived ethnonational group simply do not know what they are talking about. Ignore them with the contempt they deserve.

And permit me an observation about claims of bias, particularly ones based on identity: They might have a little bit of value in terms of anticipating something that could happen in the future (“Mary is coming for dinner on Friday, and she is Catholic, so maybe she will want fish”) but they have no value at all in explaining facts that have already happened (“Mary overcooked the fish because she is Catholic”).

The measure of success or failure of this verdict will not be in where Radovan Karadžić makes his residence between now and his death, or in what a gaggle of self-seeking politicians will do in the next week or month.

This applies to whatever extraneous nonsense people might use to explain away the verdict (“The presiding judge is Korean, and they are jealous of Serbs because their pickled cabbage is more tender”), and also to deliberately unrepresentative nonsense people might invoke to flatten out the complexity of responses (“I talked to somebody who has been closely associated with this kind of extremist politics for years, and therefore I know what everyone from this person’s ethnonational group thinks”). To explain actual occurrences you need to engage with the actual substance.

As to the concrete question of whether people should be satisfied, who am I to tell people what should satisfy them?

Some people will be pleased or displeased with verdicts on particular counts or with the length or shortness of the sentence. Some people will be delighted that the tribunal has finally brought a genuinely major trial to conclusion. Some people will see convictions on 10 of 11 counts as a partial victory, some will see a symbolic loss on the genocide question as a crushing defeat.

Most people, sadly, at least in the short term, will see this or any other event as confirmation of what they have believed all along.

What I might be able to suggest to people who are not certain whether to be satisfied is this: The measure of success or failure of this verdict will not be in where Radovan Karadžić makes his residence between now and his death, or in what a gaggle of self-seeking politicians will do in the next week or month. It will be in whether, over the long term, facts that have been established by a combination of investigation and argument enter into understanding and begin to provide a ground for discussion and mutual recognition among people who have been aggressively taught by a phalanx of institutions that they always need to think of themselves as victims and of the people around them as their enemies.

Whether this happens depends a lot less on anything the tribunal does and a lot more on the social and political environments in which people live.

Maybe it is worth adding another point: It is probably not a good idea to look for satisfaction from the law.

What does this do for history and reconciliation?

Let’s start with history, because that is the easy part.

First, the verdict brings together documentary evidence regarding a very broad scale of crimes — although limited to Bosnia and Herzegovina, it effectively does what the verdict in the trial of Slobodan Milošević should have done if the trial had not outlasted the defendant. In the end, this substantive degree of detail is going to matter a lot more than decisions on whether or not to convict or whether a crime is of one type or another.

No verdict on any matter by any court is going to substitute for what a whole complex of institutions is failing to do about reconciliation.

The really valuable job here was done not by the lawyers who sat on the bench, but by the researchers who gathered material for their use.

The verdict continues the narrative that has developed at the tribunal that the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina was a civil war, finding that despite the extensive evidence of coordination, political representation, arming, training, financing and repeated instances of direct exercise of political influence, that neither Slobodan Milošević (paragraph 3,460) nor his lieutenants Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović (paragraph 3,461) were part of the joint criminal enterprise (their employees Šešelj and Arkan were, though, according to paragraph 3,459).

As for reconciliation, we have seen two types of public statements. The first kind are platitudes from global politicians expressing a vague hope that the verdict will somehow contribute to reconciliation. These statements are worthless.

The second kind are from politicians in the region who do nothing to promote reconciliation, saying that the verdict will not promote reconciliation. These statements are less than worthless.

These sorts of statements indicate something that ought to be obvious: No verdict on any matter by any court is going to substitute for what a whole complex of institutions is failing to do about reconciliation. They could have begun in earnest before Karadžić was tried. They could still do it if the outcome of the trial were different. They could have done it if Karadžić were never tried.

They can do it now.

Karadžić in the ’90s

In June 1990, Radovan Karadžić, Momčilo Krajišnik and Biljana Plavšić formed the Bosnian branch of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), which already existed in Croatia. The same year, elections were held in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and SDS became one of the three national parties that won.

In the spring of the next year, 1991, SDS proclaimed parts of Bosnia as the Serb Autonomous Area and soon after called all Serbs in the country to boycott the referendum on independence from Yugoslavia that was held on March 1, 1992. Nevertheless, the total turnout of voters was over 63 percent, with 99.7 percent voting in favor of independence.

On January 9, Karadžić and SDS formed the Serb Republic of BiH, which was later renamed to Republika Srpska, an entity recognized by the Peace agreement signed in 1995. SDS exists until today, and is part of the government of BiH.

In the meantime, all three of its founding members, as well as a number of others were found, in post-war years, to be guilty of participating in crimes committed during the war in BiH.

Karadžić was a president of the SDS from July 1990 to July 1996. He also acted as Chairman of the National Security Council of war time Republika Srpska, and Supreme Commander of its armed forces until July 1996.

Feature image: Creative Commons.

  • 20 Mar 2019 - 16:07 | Owen:

    It does matter. If international courts fail to develop a body of case law that allows the Genocide Convention to be implemented, it's equivalent to dumping the Convention in the dustbin of history, effectively saying Yes, Do Go Ahead Again, and throwing the next vulnerable population under the bus of the next Karadzic.

  • 20 Mar 2019 - 14:36 | Owen:

    which means that it's important for international jurisdprudence to create the framework in which the applicability of the Convention can be determined in time to achieve Lemkin's objective of providing the means of intervening before genocide has proceeded to completion. The ICTY got as far as nodding to the existence of the Convention with its findings on Srebrenica, then firmly closed its collective eyes to the Convention's practical applicability.

  • 20 Mar 2019 - 14:30 | Owen:

    That superior comment about the irrelevance/counter-productiveness of distinguishing crimes against humanity from genocide completely misses the point of the obligation in law that the Convention established for signatory states TO PREVENT GENOCIDE.

  • 19 Mar 2019 - 18:23 | Massimo Moratti:

    Hi, great article and very interesting to read, thank you for the work. I am a bit curious about the conclusion that the tribunal will continue the narrative of the BIH conflict as a civil war (a non-international armed conflict). This contradicts the first decisions, i.e. Tadic, where the conflict was described as an international armed conflict. It would be interesting to know through which decisions the court changed its initial appraisal. And.. is it correct to talk about as "a conflict"? Or should we talk about as many conflicts happening at the same time, some of them of international nature, while others non international (like the one between the Velika Kladusa and central Sarajevo government troops?)