At last they’ve got him. That Ratko Mladic is now sitting in the detention cell of an international tribunal in The Hague is a cause for unqualified celebration. The man directly responsible for the massacre of some 8,000 unarmed men and boys at Srebrenica will be held to account for that and other atrocities. This is another step forward in one of the great developments of our time: the global movement toward accountability.
Just over 60 years ago, Czeslaw Milosz wrote a poem addressed to the torturers and mass murderers. “You who harmed an ordinary person,” he warned, “do not feel safe… The poet remembers.”
Back then, that was about all most mass murderers had to be frightened of: the poet remembering. A post-1945 moment of very imperfect international accountability, symbolized by the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders and the founding treaties of international humanitarian law, had faded. Even the most basic facts about many atrocities were systematically concealed or falsified. Monsters died at home in their beds.
But those post-1945 ideals never quite died. From the 1970s onward, many different forms of accountability were developed: truth commissions, judicial investigations, the opening of archives, the banning of compromised people from holding public office (“lustration”), domestic and international trials.
All have their proper place, but an international court is the best way yet discovered to deal with the vilest of the vile: those credibly accused of crimes against humanity. National courts cannot escape legal contortions and the strong suspicion of a partisan political agenda. Is an Egyptian court fining former President Hosni Mubarak $34 million for shutting down the Internet really the right way to address his political responsibility for the previous regime? The Egyptian military obviously thinks so, but then this deflects attention from its culpability under Mubarak.
International courts, such as the special tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which holds Mladic, and the International Criminal Court, are also open to multiple objections. Apart from the slowness of the judicial process, most of these objections come down to the charge of double standards.
Why, cry many Serbs, do you arraign only Serbs, not Croats and Bosnians? That accusation is simply false. Besides charging Slobodan Milosevic, Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the tribunal has convicted the Croat general Ante Gotovina and is currently retrying Ramush Haradinaj, a Kosovo Albanian guerilla leader.
Why, say others, do you fry the big fish and let the little ones swim free? That is true, but inevitable. You cannot try all the tens of thousands responsible, in different degrees, for the horrors of any dictatorship. Would it be better the other way round: catch the small, let the big go free? That was the more damning charge against de-Nazification in the late 1940s.
Then there’s the question: Why indict Dictator X but not Dictator Y? Why Milosevic and the Liberian Charles Taylor but not Than Shwe of Burma or Bashar Assad of Syria? Here’s one answer: If you can’t catch all murderers, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t catch any. And another: Maybe the ICC should be prosecuting Y too. And a third: Different responses don’t always mean double standards.
When leaders overstep the very extreme mark that qualifies them for a charge of crimes against humanity, they should everywhere and always be liable to prosecution in an international court. If, however, their misdeeds fall short of that standard, there is room for different arrangements inside their own country. For example, it is quite wrong that the Polish martial-law leader Wojciech Jaruzelski, who was not guilty of crimes against humanity and tried to make amends by helping Poland’s transition to democracy in 1989, should still — as a very old man — be on trial for those earlier misdeeds.
The most difficult choice would come if a leader such as Libya’s Moammar Kadafi , who has terrorized his people and surely merits prosecution, were then to play a Jaruzelski-type role in a negotiated transition. But there is no sign of that.
In the rest of the world, the charge of double standards is mainly directed against the West, and especially the United States. From Latin American dictators to the current rulers of Saudi Arabia — so runs a popular indictment — Washington’s tyrannical friends get away with murder while its foes are liable to be executed, like Osama bin Laden. Over the last 60 years, there have been too many individual instances of extreme “realist” double standards. However, the killing of Bin Laden definitely doesn’t belong on that list.
Yes, in some ideal world, Bin Laden would now be sitting in a cell in The Hague. But does anyone seriously believe that the Pakistani security services could have been relied on to deliver Bin Laden to an international court? Tell that to the brave Pakistani journalist who has just paid with his life for reporting the entanglement of those very security services with Al Qaeda. In a dangerous nighttime operation, in hostile territory, with no idea what Bin Laden had under his belt, a Navy SEAL could not be expected to stop and read that ruthless mass murderer his rights under U.N. conventions. But that was, and should remain, an exceptional case.
If international law is to have any chance of deterring the monsters of tomorrow, then we need the United States to support it practically and not just rhetorically. At the moment, the U.S. is not even a member of the ICC.
There is nothing irreversible about the movement toward accountability. As the affairs of the world are increasingly driven by non-Western powers that pique themselves on the defense of their own sovereignty, the trend is quite likely to be reversed.
If the profoundly satisfying thing that happened this week to Ratko Mladic is to have any chance of becoming an international norm rather than a transient European exception, then the U.S. must throw its weight behind the kinds of institution that will make this possible. To celebrate the arrest of Mladic, the United States should join the International Criminal Court.
Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University.