Photographers: Mladic: Srdjan Ilic/Associated Press; Qaddafi: Paul O'Driscoll/Bloomberg News; Illustration by Bloomberg View
Photographers: Mladic: Srdjan Ilic/Associated Press; Qaddafi: Paul O'Driscoll/Bloomberg News; Illustration by Bloomberg View

The story of the capture outside Belgrade yesterday of General Ratko Mladic, the Serbian military commander responsible for the 1995 mass murder of 8,000 men and boys near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, holds lessons for the world as it grapples with how to bring peace and justice to Libya.

Announcing the arrest, Serb officials said Mladic will soon be extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The United Nations has referred the case of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi to the International Criminal Court, also in The Hague, on charges of killing civilians.

The U.S. supported the criminal referral on Qaddafi. The potential downside of this action is that by threatening to make Qaddafi an international outlaw -- prosecutors in The Hague have yet to indict him -- Washington has likely rendered a diplomatic solution to the war in Libya impossible.

Why would Qaddafi give up power and seek exile abroad if he thinks he would be sent to the International Criminal Court? This conundrum has left diplomats in the absurd situation of scouring Africa for a country that might take the Libyan leader but not send him to The Hague.

In the case of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, Mladic and other Bosnian Serb strongmen were similarly referred to the International War Crimes Tribunal while the conflict was still going on. Arguably, that gave them additional cause to keep fighting rather than negotiate. In the end, peace was achieved only because the NATO allies used sufficient force to induce Belgrade to accept peace terms.

Justice Through Diplomacy

Justice came more slowly, but subsequent diplomacy has delivered it, too. Mladic was the last of those wanted for war crimes in Bosnia. His patron, Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Serbia, was sent to the tribunal in 2001 and died in jail five years later. Mladic’s civilian counterpart, former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, is now at The Hague facing charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims from 1992 to 1995.

In the mid-1990s, few thought these war crimes trials would ever happen. But American and European leaders remained committed not only to achieving peace in Bosnia, but to upholding international humanitarian law.

It was Western pressure on Serbia’s government, especially the consistent message from the European Union that the capture of Mladic was a necessary condition for Serbia to join the EU, that persuaded Belgrade to finally move against the general. After allowing him to live sometimes openly in Serbia for the past 15 years, the Belgrade government has at last put its people’s future prosperity first.

Libya’s story may not end so well. Putting Qaddafi on notice that he may be prosecuted in an international tribunal may turn out to be self-defeating unless the U.S. and NATO are truly determined to remove him from power. So far, they have shown no such resolve. Thus, the possibility remains that Libyans seeking change in their country may find neither peace nor justice.

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To contact the editor responsible for this column: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net