Europe, History

Ratko Mladić’s Conviction and why the Evidence of Mass Graves Still Matters

Ratko Mladić has been convicted of genocide and persecution, extermination, murder and the inhumane act of forcible transfer in the area of Srebrenica in 1995. He was also found guilty of persecution, extermination, murder, deportation and inhumane act of forcible transfer in municipalities throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina and of murder, terror and unlawful attacks on civilians in Sarajevo.

In addition, the former Bosnian Serb army general was convicted for the hostage-taking of UN personnel. But he was acquitted of the charge of genocide in several municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992.

The events that occurred in and around the Srebrenica enclave between July 10-19 1995, where an estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mostly men and boys, lost their lives, are well documented. These atrocities, culminating in the “biggest single mass murder in Europe” since World War II, not only resulted in a tremendous loss of life and emotionally scarred survivors, it also left behind a landscape filled with human remains and mass graves.

Forensic investigations into the Srebrenica massacre assisted in convicting Mladić, who stood accused for his involvement in implementing and orchestrating the forcible transfer and eventual elimination of the Bosnian Muslim population from Srebrenica. For the Srebrenica investigations, between 1996 and 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) conducted exhumations at 23 sites, while a further 20 mass graves were probed to confirm that they contained human remains.


The investigative objectives for these investigations were to:

* Corroborate victim and witness accounts of the massacres;
* Determine an accurate count of victims;
* Determine cause and time of death;
* Determine the sex of victims;
* Determine the identity of victims (a process that is ongoing with the help of DNA analysis); and
* Identify links to the perpetrators.

The task of locating and exhuming mass graves in Bosnia continues, as does the general quest of locating the missing in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. And this evidence still matters for the ICTY. Evidence on hundreds of bodies exhumed from the Tomašica mass grave near Prijedor in the north-west of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was presented in the Mladić trial.

The summary judgment read out in the court room in The Hague made this very clear:

During several weeks in September and early October 1995, senior members of the VRS [Army of the Bosnian-Serb Republic] and the MUP [Ministry of the Interior] attempted to conceal their crimes by exhuming their victims’ remains from several mass graves, and then reburying those remains in more remote areas in Zvornik and Bratunac municipalities. Their attempt to cover up the Srebrenica massacres ultimately failed.

Such attempts at hiding crimes by digging up mass graves only to dispose of the bodies in so called “secondary mass graves” results in commingled and mutilated body parts rendering identification and repatriation of human remains all the more difficult. This causes further and prolonged distress to the survivor population and can be seen as intent to cause suffering.

Properly investigated forensic evidence from mass graves, the presentation of such physical evidence, the testing of expertise, independence and impartiality of the accounts in court, is likely to result in more reliable findings. In the case of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić forensic evidence helped confirm the crimes committed – it can be assumed that the same is the case for Mladić; at the time of writing the judgment in its entirety is not available yet.

The ConversationIt is well worth remembering that the information from forensic mass grave investigations has another purpose and does not only speak to a court of law. The work on the ground through organisations such as the International Commission on Missing Persons will continue as there are “too many people who are still searching for their children’s bones to bury”. Those forensic findings will have a value and meaning for family members and survivors that judgments such as the Mladić one cannot have. It offers them information on their lost loved ones and, hopefully, the return of their human remains.

Melanie Klinkner, is a Senior Lecturer In Law, at Bournemouth University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation


  1. As far as legal importance of this forensic evidence, I couldn’t agree more. On the other hand, I think that the article is quite underwhelming regarding the scope of importance of this ICTY verdict and the Srebrenica massacre/genocide because it didn’t address it in full ( actually not at all ).

    For now I can only talk about my view on this, being a Bosnian Serb myself and as a son of a Bosnian Serb army ( VRS ) soldier, this verdict is hugely important ( and that can’t be emphasized enough with mere words ). There are several reasons for this:

    Firstly, the verdict speaks about a certain context when it comes to the Bosnian war from ’92-’95. So far, the greatest number of convicted war criminals comes from my people, on top of which comes the conviction for the heaviest crime during the entire war. To a person not well versed in the intricacies and complexities of Balkan ( and especially Bosnian ) politics and history this most surely looks completely black and white, completely one-sided. From the Bosnian Serb perspective ( and as far as I’ve seen, from the objective perspective… but I admit I do hold a bias here ) that is plain unjust, as there was the same number ( proportionally to the population ) of Serb victims as from other nations, and the world is being ice cold towards them, leaving their numbers, and even mere existence and suffering, completely unknown. An interesting fact regarding Srebrenica is that prior to the genocide in ’95, couple of thousand of Serb civilians were killed in a series of raids by the Bosnian Muslim ( Boshniak ) forces, which was the trigger for the retaliation. This is not an excuse, nor a mitigation of the evil committed by Mladić’s troops and paramilitaries from Serbia in Srebrenica. This is just an illustration of the pernicious one-sided narratives which are becoming ever more present in today’s world, which only add more fuel to the fire in the long run ( in this case, the bitterness within the Serb nation is just growing as the time goes by ).

    Secondly, the mass graves are evidence of the fact that human beings are to this day still completely capable of evil. No form of utopian optimism will ever change that fact. And as far as evil is concerned, the Balkans ( and especially Bosnia and Herzegovina ) are full of it. Serbs have spent the last 50 or so years, prior to the Yugoslav wars, bearing the victimhood status in their minds and hearts. The communist regime has used the genocide committed by the fascist ustaša regime ( which included Croats and Bosnian Muslims ) during WWII against the Serbs in their propaganda efforts, thus allowing Serbs to absorb themselves in victimhood mentality. And when the 90’s came and nationalists in Croatia and among the Bosnian Muslims took power, Serbs were rightfully frightened and reacted. It is a different matter completely that their/our reaction was not proportional in many, if not most cases ( to put it mildly ). Out of somewhat justified fears and with a victimhood mentality – my people committed horrible crimes. But so did the others, who also took the victimhood mantra during the wars, and the evil that happened in that time period by all sides was inspired by such mantras. “Woe is me, we are the victims” was and still is repeated by the mainstream in Croatia, Serbia and among the Boshniak nationalists who rule to this day. The only difference now is that all sides victimize themselves in the same manner and at the same rate. It is, actually, completely analogous to the so called “progressive stack” of the SJW types who systematize someone’s level of oppression by various factors, with the only difference being that in the Balkan victimhood mentality there are only two categories – “us, the victims” and “them, the killers”.
    Such mantras have been repeated by the Croats and Muslims prior to WWII, then Serbs prior to the 90’s, and now by everyone. And such mantras have always, so far, been followed by horrible crimes. I must say that I feel uneasy with the burden of history that Bosnia bears. These mass graves are, as I’ve already said, evidence of the fact that human beings are still capable of such evil, even dubbing themselves as the victims prior to a horrible crime. That is why I fear for the future and even the possible Muslim lashing out towards us if their hard-liners would get a chance to “get revenge on the chetnik Vlachs once and for all” ( just as Mladić said a similar sentence when he entered Srebrenica ). But that is not the only thing I fear. I fear for this self-victimization disease spreading too far in the West. The minorities in the West are easily taking this cancerous “logic” as valid and accepting it, thus making the host population going the same way. And that is where I get to my third and last point:

    West, study the Balkans closely as we are the window to your future. We’ve been such with 1848 revolutions, with the Balkan wars, with WWI and now as it seems with the 90’s. In the 90’s here spread next ideas and ideologies – ethnic nationalism, self-victimization narratives, collectivism, hard right ideas and parties, resistance to a higher federative level of government which was dominated by one state… Sounds familiar? Of course it does. It’s what’s happening across Europe right now.

    Avoid our mistakes, avoid evil, don’t allow self-victimization, respect the interests of smaller peoples and nations, try to cooperate as much as possible, or you all will drink the bitter drink of irony when evil comes knocking at your doorstep and you let it in, the same way we did here and for which you ( rightfully, for the most part ) look down upon us. Look at these mass graves. They will be your future if you don’t learn from our mistakes.

    As far as my own stance towards Mladić goes, he answered it accurately during the war, when a journalist asked him:”What do you say about the fact that you are an evil to be afraid of to Muslims, and a hero for defending your people?”, and he answered:”I’d say both of those statements are true”. Same goes for most of the prominent war leaders of all sides, sadly.

    • Cecil Collins says

      As someone who is interested in learning more about the Bosnian War, do you have any recommendations for further reading about the conflict and the history behind it? This article has sparked some interest but I am only vaguely familiar with the war and have some more specific knowledge of Arkan’s Tigers.

      • Burek is only with meat says

        You’re going to have a hard time finding books which are realistic about the war, as it is fairly recent. The best thing, but not perfect, is a British documentary “The death of Yugoslavia” which documents fairly good enough the events of the wars but fails in mentioning the myriad of specific things. For background, I’d recomend studying Yugoslav history since the Berlin congress in 1878. and taking the time to read all sides, as the narratives differ a lot regarding everything. For example, for the Bosnian Muslim narrative I’d recomend Noel Malcolm’ “History of Bosnia” ( I might have forgotten the exact name of the book ) as a horribly one-sided story. On the other hand, if you speak Serbo-Croatian, you can read “History of Republika Srpska” by Cedomir Antic for the Serb narrative and arguments for the stance that the crime in Srebrenica was not a genocide. Horribly one-sided story as well.

        In short terms though, Serbs wanted to keep Yugoslavia as they wanted to live in one state, while others wanted to xreate their ethnic homelands – so wars broke out as Serbs were a big minority in Croatia ( around 10% ) and a third of Bosnian population. Serbs also feared that Muslims and Croats would start killing them or discriminating against them just as they did 50 years earlier as fascists so…they started doing the same… And the Muslims and Croats did the same too ( so…Serbs were kinda right in the end about that at least ). Then everybody decided to ethnically cleanse the areas they held ( Croatia made half of its Serbs flee to Serbia, some 200.000 people; Bosnian Croats cleansed Serbs and Muslims from south-western Bosnia; Muslims cleansed Croats from central Bosnia and after the war 150.000 Serbs left Sarajevo; Serbs cleansed parts of NW Bosnia, NE and East and created an almost compact territory ).

        If you really want to strain your brain – read on the origins of Bosnian Muslims. So many nationalistic perspectives that it’s pure chaos.

        As far as Arkan goes, I’m sure Vice has something on him.

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