“I just can’t wait to hear the final report of the Mueller probe!”
Even those not normally interested in the intricate details of complex legal investigations have found themselves obsessed with the criminal investigation at the center of our nation’s political drama—the Special Counsel Investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, or the Mueller probe.
Both sides of the political aisle are awash with speculation about what the final report might reveal (and it’s probably as damning as whatever is in Donald Trump’s tax returns). Whatever you think it might disclose, we all seem convinced that the investigation will prove to the American public once and for all just what was going on during the 2016 election.
But international justice offers a cautionary tale about the ability of criminal justice mechanisms to draw a line in the sand about political events.
Very popular criminals
In 1993, the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in order to try those most responsible for the crimes committed during the Balkans wars of the 1990s. In December 2017, it sentenced former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić, also known as “the Butcher of Bosnia,” to life imprisonment for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Justice, one might infer, had been served. Who could deny the atrocities now?
After the Mladić verdict, in Srebrenica—a town whose name became synonymous with the 1995 genocide—mayor : “Mladić will be remembered in history and this sentence only strengthens his myth among the Serb nation, which is grateful to him for saving it from persecution and extermination.” For a little less than half of the Bosnian population, Mladić is not a war criminal: he is a hero.
Denials about atrocities of the war are typical and commonplace in the Balkans, even of infamous events like Srebrenica. Despite 2.5 million pages of court transcripts, the ICTY’s findings are not always accepted as true among the people for whom it was established.
There are many theories about why Bosnians have not internalized the ICTY rulings. Some argue that the trials and the judgments were too lengthy, complicated and legalistic for people to understand—the court is located far away in The Hague and the proceedings are conducted in English and French. People in the former Yugoslav simply didn’t watch the trials or read the verdicts. Some point the finger at nationalist elites, politicians and journalists, who used confusion about the ICTY rulings for their own benefit. Still others point out that the defendants were allowed to hijack the trials and use them as political platforms, undermining the ICTY’s ability to communicate with the public.
But the truth was that being subjects of international indictments for war crimes did not really lessen the popularity of any of the Balkans leaders among their constituencies. Continue reading