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VLASIC: Ratko Mladic arrest: Pen mightier than sword

As rule of law spreads, safe havens from prosecution dwindle

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Ratko Mladic's initial appearance at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague Friday came almost 16 years after he allegedly presided over the largest slaughter in Europe since the Holocaust - the Srebrenica genocide. On July 11, 1995, as commander of the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS), Mladic took center stage as the VRS overran the Srebrenica "safe area" and his forces separated the men from the women in the U.N.-protected enclave.

Over the next few days, approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered.

Some were opportunistically killed, but most were slaughtered in a full-scale military operation: hands were tied, eyes were blindfolded and unarmed civilians were lined up before freshly dug mass graves and shot in the back. They are still uncovering mass graves in Bosnia, tied to the killing operation that Mladic oversaw.

Seemly untouchable, Mladic evaded justice for more than a decade.

In the early years, he almost flaunted his invincibility, showing up at soccer games and events in Belgrade.

But after the similarly accused President Slobodan Milosevic was arrested, he went into hiding.

He was rumored to have hid out in underground bunkers and secret safe houses, sometimes in Eastern Bosnia, sometimes in Serbia - the locations kept changing - but the predictions from some were constant: Mladic would never be taken alive.

Well, that all changed late last month when a seemingly deteriorating Mladic was arrested in Lazarevo, a tiny town north of Belgrade.

Not unlike recently released videos of a haggard-looking Osama bin Laden, the one-time man-of-action Mladic appeared much less fearsome in modern reality than he did in the video clips from the war.

The added irony is that it was Serbia, the country that he had been hiding in for so many years, that eventually gave him up to prosecutors in The Hague.

With a stroke of the pen, Serbian Justice Minister Snezana Malovic helped bring to justice one of the most powerful generals in recent European history.

By signing the extradition order, permitting Mladic's transfer to The Hague, Ms. Malovic, a 34-year-old spectacled technocrat, who was likely still in school when Mladic was strutting through Srebrenica, set in motion a series of events that have led to Mladic's appearance in court.

For anyone who has followed the military career of Gen. Ratko Mladic, it seems almost comical that a legendary man of action, a wartime hero to some, both feared and loved by many of his soldiers, rumored to have been protected by fierce supporters willing to die to protect him, was sent to The Hague, not by an invading military force, but by a woman with a legal degree, protected not by body armor but by the law.

Indeed, Mladic is not the first alleged war criminal that she's sent to The Hague with a stroke of her hand.

On her first day in office, Ms. Malovic signed the extradition order for Radovan Karadzic, wartime president of Serb-controlled Bosnia, sending him to the U.N. war crimes tribunal that now holds Mladic.

Considering the power of her signature, one must wonder: Is the pen now mightier than the sword?

Of course, we can look at Libya, Syria and Sudan to find examples of modern war crimes and atrocities, but we can also look to the march of justice - and the advent of lawyers and prosecutors - for progress in the arrest of some of the most powerful men in modern history.

After the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic came the arrest of former presidents Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Charles Taylor of Liberia. They were followed with the arrests of Chad's former president, Hissene Habre, Cambodia's Khieu Samphan, the former president of the Khmer Rouge, and of course, Radovan Karadzic.

In each case, men who were once deemed untouchable - like Mladic - have been brought to justice, not by the sword, but by the pen. Lawyers and their investigative colleagues have built criminal cases and applied to judges to approve indictments and sign arrest warrants, leading to the arrests of a former strongmen.

With a stroke of a pen, impunity is slowly being banished from the world. Of course, impunity will not disappear overnight and it may always endure somewhere, but Ms. Malovic's signature demonstrates that once powerful men, bent on mass slaughter and destruction are increasingly facing justice in the courtroom, rather than exile in a well-appointed villa.

The proceedings in The Hague will not be lost on a new generation of lawyers and prosecutors, determined to bring an end to impunity, or those in danger of falling victim to the world's thugs and mass murders.

To the world's victims, Mladic's initial court appearance is a sign of progress. To the world's perpetrators like President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan and Col. Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, it is a warning. Despite your swords, pens are ready and your days are numbered.

Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University and a partner at Ward & Ward PLLC, served on the Slobodan Milosevic and Srebrenica genocide prosecution trial teams at the U.N. war crimes tribunal.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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