The TV broadcast of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s first appearance before the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague on July 31 was somewhat surreal. Here was a man who, more than any other, represented the human face of the Serbian mass-murder campaign in the Bosnian war during the 1990s and who, arrogant and flamboyant, was ubiquitous on Western TV screens, but who then vanished from sight for 13 years. In the meantime, the Hague tribunal – whose first prominent indictee he was along with his military counterpart, General Ratko Mladic – has slowly lumbered forward, prosecuting former-Yugoslav war criminals, with somewhat mixed results.
At a panel discussion in London that coincided with Karadzic’s appearance, Sir Geoffrey Nice, the chief prosecutor at the Milosevic trial, pointed out that – contrary to its reputation – the trial of Milosevic was not slow or inefficient. It doubled in duration from two years to four, not because it was badly organised, but because of Milosevic’s long periods of absence due to sickness.
Nice also argued that, while some observers lamented the way Milosevic turned the trial into a circus with his contemptuous behaviour and political speeches, it was actually the right of the accused to behave in this way, and from the point of view of the prosecution, it made its job easier than it would have been had Milosevic been represented by a competent, professional lawyer. For all the Christ-like adulation bestowed upon him by his followers on account of his histrionics at The Hague, Milosevic was saved from conviction only by his untimely death. Those with knowledge of the case generally feel that Karadzic will be easier to prosecute than Milosevic, given his more overt involvement in Serb war crimes in Bosnia.
So far, Karadzic appears quieter and more respectful of the tribunal than either Milosevic or the loudmouthed Serbian far-Right leader Vojislav Seselj. His excuse for his long evasion of justice was that he had been promised by US diplomat Richard Holbrooke that he would not have to face the tribunal if he quietly stepped down from power and removed himself from public life: “Mr Holbrooke undertook on behalf of the USA that I would not be tried before this tribunal.” Indeed, Karadzic claimed that his exile was enforced by a US death threat aimed at keeping him quiet: “I was in danger of being liquidated because I had made a commitment.” Holbrooke, for his part, denies claims that he made a deal with Karadzic to save him from the tribunal.