Ratko Mladić’s legacy and the appeasement of war criminals

Western governments have not learned from history and continue to appease genocide perpetrators.

Bosnian Muslim women watch a televised broadcast of the final verdict of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, in the Srebrenica-Potocari Genocide Memorial Center, Bosnia and Herzegovina on June 8, 202 [Dado Ruvić/Reuters]

On June 8, a United Nations court upheld the conviction of Bosnian Serb military chief and war criminal Ratko Mladić for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the Bosnian war. The International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals at The Hague rejected Mladić’s appeal and thus confirmed his life sentence.

World leaders welcomed the conclusion of the nine-year-long court case against Mladić, with US President Joe Biden stating that the final judgement “shows that those who commit horrific crimes will be held accountable” and “reinforces our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world”.

While many in the West consider this “justice served” and a time to turn the page, for Bosnia the wounds of the war continue to fester. Mladić and a few of his associates may be behind bars but their ideas and deeds continue to shape Bosnian politics and hurt Bosnian lives. His greatest legacy – an ethnically cleansed autonomous entity, Republika Srpska, carved out of Bosnia – lives on under the leadership of his ideological offspring and continues to be a model for war criminals and terrorists across the world.

Mladić’s legacy

Before the war, the territory which today falls within the borders of Republika Srpska was ethnically diverse just like other parts of Bosnia, with around 30 percent of the population being Bosniak (Muslim). The genocide, however, resulted in ethnic homogeneity, with cities like Banja Luka, Prijedor, Srebrenica and Višegrad losing the vast majority of their Bosniak population.

Today, at the helm of Republika Srpska is Milorad Dodik, a proud genocide denier and a defence witness at the trials of both Mladić and former Republika Srpska President and convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić.

Since he took office in 2006, Dodik has systematically implemented policies to make the lives of Bosniak people, who have returned to their homes in Republika Srpska or want to do so, as difficult as possible.

He has claimed that Bosniak returnees are coming to “occupy again” what he perceives as land rightfully belonging to Serbs. To curb such returns, he has pushed for laws that enable the confiscation of land and property of Bosniaks and Croats, who were forced to flee during the war.

Under his leadership, schools in Republika Srpska continue to deny the constitutional right of Bosniak children to study in the Bosnian language. State institutions also discriminate against non-Serbs in employment opportunities and service provision.

The majority of the political elite of Republika Srpska denies the genocide and refuses to condemn Mladić, Karadžić or any of the other convicted war criminals. As recently as May this year, the entity’s legislature rejected a request by the UN High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, to withdraw government honours given to war criminals, such as Karadžić.

Under this political leadership, there has been no repentance or even society-wide debate about what happened during the war and convicted war criminals continue to be celebrated. Souvenir shops in Republika Srpska’s capital, Banja Luka openly sell posters, T-shirts and mugs with their faces, while streets and schools in many cities of the Republika Srpska bear the names of war criminals.

Unsurprisingly, the post-war generation – having grown up in this environment of hate – fully embraces genocide denial and Mladić’s legacy. The mayor of Banja Luka, Draško Stanivuković, a member of this generation, is a prime example.

The 28-year-old not only continuously refuses to call Mladić, Karadžić and other war criminals as such, but also appears to be a fan of the fascist “Chetniks”, the Yugoslav paramilitary forces allied with Nazi Germany during World War II. Stanivukovic’s radical views and activism have earned him copious praise, including by convicted war criminal and self-described Chetnik Vojislav Šešelj.

The appeasement of war criminals

The power Mladić’s legacy continues to hold today has much to do with Western policies of appeasement.

It seems Western Europe did not learn its lesson from the late 1930s when it repeatedly conceded to Hitler’s demands, hoping for peace only to be dragged into war. Almost 60 years later, it made the same mistake, when it sought to appease the warlords of Republika Srpska.

In the fall of 1995, just as the Bosnian Army started to advance against the Serb forces, liberating territories that had been ethnically cleansed, the Clinton administration rushed to put an end to the fighting.

It pushed for peace negotiations and brokered a deal that wrote Mladić and Karadžić’s creation, Republika Srpska, into the Bosnian constitution, thus giving it international recognition. This move legalised and legitimised the Serb nationalist cause and sent a strong message that the dream of a “Greater Serbia” is still alive and even achievable.

Over the following two decades, the West continued to appease those espousing genocidal ideologies. When the United States imposed sanctions on Dodik in 2017, the European Union decided not to follow suit, despite recognising the dangerous ethnic politics the Serb leader is playing in Republika Srpska. In the following years, EU capitals continued to host Dodik on official visits, without rebuking him in any way for his genocide denial.

Such display of weakness in the face of genocide ideologues have brought into question the integrity of Western values and have sent a dangerous signal to the rest of the world that genocidal enterprises will not be confronted and that their leaders will only be appeased.

The sentences handed out to Bosnian Serb war criminals do not seem to have discouraged atrocities. Over the past decade, genocidal acts have continued to take place across the world, with little to no reaction from the international community. Aspiring war criminals see Mladić’s case as a model in how to successfully legalise brutal bloodshed. Far-right terrorists, such as Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant, have also felt inspired  by “heroes”, such  as Mladić and Karadžić.

In Republika Srpska, this appeasement has encouraged Mladić’s supporters and discouraged any challenge to the dominant genocide denial narrative. This only deepens the dysfunction of the Bosnian state and pushes the country ever closer to political disaster or even another genocidal conflict.

It is telling what Rajko Vasić, the architect of Dodik’s party ideology, recently said after an Orthodox church built illegally on a Bosniak woman’s land in the village of Konjevic Polje was demolished. “In a future war, many innocent lives will perish because of this,” he wrote in a tweet.

Appeasement, as we have learned from history, only leads to war.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.