The Trial of Ratko Mladic: a Gender Crimes Perspective

The trial of General Ratko Mladic, the so-called Butcher of Bosnia, got underway on Wednesday at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, over 17 years after the crimes were committed. He is charged with 11 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed over a period of three and a half years in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including for the siege of Sarajevo, ethnic cleansing and forced displacement throughout the territory, and the execution of over 7000 men and boys in Srebrenica. The indictment alleges that Mladic and others committed these crimes as part of a joint criminal enterprise to terrorize the civilian population and expel them from the region.

Significantly, the charges against Mladic include sex crimes. Although rape is not explicitly indicted, “rape and other acts of sexual violence” are included in the genocide charges, as well as the “persecution” and “inhumane acts” charges as crimes against humanity. (Similar sex crime charges are leveled against his co-indictee, Radovan Karadzic, whose trial began in October 2009; similar sex crime charges were also indicted against former head of state Slobodan Milosevic, who died before the end of his lengthy four year trial.)

Rape and other forms of sexual violence, including sexual slavery, were intentionally and ruthlessly used as weapons of warfare and terror in the Balkan wars. In the indictment, Mladic is charged with genocide for using rape and other forms as sexual violence as a means to destroy thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats by causing “serious bodily or mental harm” to them, and by inflicting on them “conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction.” This recognizes the profound and far reaching impact that sex crimes have on the individual victims, their families, and whole communities.

In his opening statement, prosecutor Dermot Groome told the packed courtroom that while sexual violence was committed primarily against women and girls, males were sometimes sexually assaulted as well. He said that many of the sex crimes in the trial will focus on Foca prison camp, where “systematic rape was commonplace.” Perpetrators not only raped the victims, but sometimes forced them to perform sex acts on others, including family members. He read the written testimony of witness RM070 as saying she was “raped by almost 50 men”.

According to the ICTY’s website, 78 individuals have been charged with some form of sexual violence, representing nearly half of the cases. Of these, 28 have been convicted of crimes including sexual violence, 11 have been acquitted, 20 are in ongoing proceedings before the tribunal, 6 were referred to national jurisdictions, and 13 had the indictments withdrawn before trial. Indeed, in the ICTY, rape and other forms of sexual violence have been indicted as genocide, the crime against humanity of ‘rape,’ ‘torture,’ ‘persecution,’ ‘inhumane acts,’ ‘enslavement,’ and the war crimes of ‘torture or inhuman treatment,’ ‘willfully causing great suffering,’ ‘outrages upon personal dignity,’ and ‘rape.’ Notably, the only place the 1993 ICTY statute establishing the court explicitly includes sexual violence is under the crime against humanity of ‘rape.’

The ICTY has shown grave reluctance to convict individuals of rape crimes when the accused did not physically commit the crime themselves or they were not physically present at rape sites and encouraged or otherwise facilitated the crimes. While there are some media reports that Mladic did in fact encourage sexual violence, it is clear that these crimes were rampant throughout the territory, and as the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, Mladic failed to prevent, halt, or punish the crimes. He also can be found to have facilitated their commission by his acts and omissions, particularly as they were broadly reported and his failure to act could be deemed as implicitly (and perhaps explicitly) condoning the crimes.

Tens of thousands of women and girls, and some men and boys, deserve justice for the various forms of sexual violence committed against them in the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s.

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