The 1995 Srebrenica massacre was genocide, but can charges stick for atrocities in 'the municipalities'? Eduardo Reyes looks at the close of the Bosnian-Serb general's trial.

This week, arguments in the trial of former Bosnian-Serb general Ratko Mladić for ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘violations of the laws and customs of war’ close. It will be the end of an era for an historic exercise of international jurisdiction. 

Mladić’s final journeys through Churchillplein 1, The Hague, home of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), takes him through a building that now feels close to empty. At its peak, 1,600 people worked here. Now only Court 1 is in use; Court 3 remains usable as a back-up – others have been rebuilt to house the court’s archives.

The ICTY’s 161 indictees are all now one of the following: dead; found guilty and in custody; found guilty and have served their time; found not-guilty; had their case dismissed; or in the final stages of trial or legal appeals.

Mladić is accused of two counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) from May 1992 to late 1995. Indicted in July 1995, he was finally apprehended in 2011, and his trial began in May 2012. 377 witnesses testified.

Closing arguments were heard last week; Thursday should see 90 minutes of replies from prosecution and defence, then he will await a verdict. Last year Radovan Karadžić’s 40-year sentence was delivered along with the verdict.

Unlike in the Nuremberg trials, where the highest ranking Nazis were tried first, some of the biggest ICTY names have come towards the end of the process. A year ago, Serb politician Karadžić had his verdict and was sentenced.

It is a fittingly high-profile end to an extraordinary process that established new law and practice in a dramatic field.

But this verdict might also develop the jurisprudence further, and lawyers across town at the International Criminal Court – and in ICC field offices – will be watching closely.

At issue is genocide. So far, only the July 1995 massacre of 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica has been established as genocide in the jurisprudence. The genocide charge has not stuck for what’s termed ‘the municipalities’ – shorthand for smaller atrocities such as the 144 killed in Biljani.

Karadžić, a civilian president with layers of influence and command between himself and the atrocities, was found not guilty of the municipalities genocide charge. There is a feeling that as Mladić the soldier was closer to events, a conviction is more likely. A guilty verdict for atrocities in the municipalities might lower the bar for ‘genocide’ in ways that ICC lawyers would find powerful and helpful. 

 Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor