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Bosnia Far From Ready To Host Karadzic Trial

Bosnia-Herzegovina's main court building in Sarajevo

Bosnia-Herzegovina's main court building in Sarajevo

Following the recent arrest of notorious alleged war criminal Radovan Karadzic in Belgrade, there have been many calls for him to face justice in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- the country where his alleged crimes were committed. Bosnia, some observers argue, has worked hard in recent years to build legitimate courts and to realize its aspirations to join the European Union.

Trials are not just about punishing the guilty. They send a message throughout society about the price that is to be paid for certain behavior. And they often serve as a means of painful but necessary reconciliation. For these reasons, it is important for any sovereign state with independent courts to hold them itself, on its own territory, where the crimes were committed and where the victims live or are buried.

But Bosnia is not a sovereign state. The UN high representative, who is also the EU special representative, has the authority to overrule any government decision. More accurately, though, Bosnia often looks more like a failed state than a sovereign one.

Bosnian politicians, with very rare exceptions, still address only the ethnic group to which they belong; they do not even try to address the interests of other groups in the country. As a result, their policies and their statements are one-sided. They enjoy their current status as an ethically based coalition, rather than working to form a genuine, national-unity government.

When Karadzic was arrested, some in Sarajevo called for the dissolution of the Republika Srpska, the ethnic-Serbian entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina. While in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, politicians expressed the hope that officials in the federal government will someday face trial themselves "for crimes committed against Serbs."

Too many leaders in Bosnia today are primarily in the business of shielding their own criminals.

Ironically, but continuing to act in an ethnically divided manner for the last 20 years, Bosnia's leaders have implemented the separatist ideology of people like Karadzic. They have refused to make the compromises necessary to form a single, coherent state -- preferring instead to live as three separate ethnic entities sharing the same space.

And then there are the courts. Last year, a Sarajevo court released indicted war criminal Momcilo Mandic. The court acted professionally -- the evidence didn't add up -- but the public was shocked. They expected the court to act in accordance with their wishes, rather than the law.

In a country divided into two ethnically based entities that cooperate minimally -- and usually under compulsion from the international community -- no Bosnian court enjoys credibility across the country. It will take years, even after the two entities begin the process of forming a single country, before universally credible and legitimate courts emerge in Bosnia.

Finally, there is the issue of the media. When former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic was being tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Serbian television carried defense arguments live but did not cover the prosecution. If Karadzic were tried in Bosnia, it would not be surprising to see media in Republika Srpska covering the defense, while media in the Muslim-Croat Federation covered only the prosecution. The consequences could be devastating; but even if violence is avoided, such a trial would merely serve to deepen divisions and confound mutual understanding.

I can imagine the spectacle that a Karadzic trial in Sarajevo would likely become. I envisage thousands requesting to attend the proceedings. I can see standing ovations or raucous protests in the courtroom. I can easily imagine the authorities setting up a big-screen video monitor in front of the court and hundreds -- or thousands -- of screaming spectators gathering around it, rooting for the prosecution or the defense.

Opinion polls in Bosnia since Karadzic's arrest indicate this is exactly what would happen. Residents of the Muslim-Croat Federation rejoiced when Karadzic was captured, while a majority in the Republika Srpska view it as a "disaster" that is aimed "against Serbs." Residents there are convinced Karadzic was arrested because of Serbia's ambition to join the EU rather than because he might have done anything wrong.

Obviously, in a country where a primary objective is to hide "our" war criminals and indict "theirs," a Karadzic trial would not contribute to reconciliation. Quite the opposite, in fact. This is why the international community -- in the form of the ICTY, in this case -- must bring Karadzic to the dock. The ICTY still has higher credibility among all Bosnian ethnic groups than any local court. Bosnia cannot handle this trial -- it will have a hard enough time handling the reactions to it.

Nenad Pejic is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Reaction To Arrest
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Only a few hundred hard-line Serbian nationalists turned out in Belgrade this week to protest the arrest of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. Does this negligible reaction from the once-powerful nationalists indicate that their cause is finally waning? Branka Trivic, a correspondent at RFE/RL's Belgrade bureau, believes it does. More