The capture of Ratko Mladic and his pending transfer to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has become another boon for international justice in a year where war criminals seem to be dropping like flies. But there’s an interesting debate to be had over whether this arrest signals a stronger commitment to end impunity on principle or its combined success with political and pragmatic imperatives. Of course, it’s both. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch argues that the international community’s “principled pressure for justice” worked with Serbia – and the pressure came from conditioning Serbia’s EU accession on Mladic’s arrest. Similarly, Geert-Jan Knoops argues that Serbia’s action to finally arrest him was based on “political and economic motivations” – irrespective of the international community’s more normative appeals for holding Mladic accountable.

And hidden amongst the media and diplomatic excitement over Mladic was the important news about the arrest of Bernard Munyagishari by Congolese authorities in the DRC. Munyagishari is wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) for genocide and crimes against humanity committed in the 1994 genocide. He is alleged to have been the leader of the Interahamwe (an extremist youth militia) in the Gisenyi region of western Rwanda, responsible for training Interahamwe and ordering mass killings and rapes. There is little controversy over his arrest – it’s a victory for both the ICTR and the Rwandan government. Of course, there’s a pragmatic element at play here too. The presence of many former genocidaires in the Kivus in the DRC (Munyagishari was arrested in North Kivu) has been a significant source of insecurity and been used to justify Rwanda’s military engagement in the region. Impunity and conflict are intricately linked in this region.

That there are pragmatic reasons for and benefits to arresting war criminals, however, does not undermine the apparent trend of a principled commitment to end impunity. They’re often, but not always, mutually reinforcing.

Beyond the Big Fish….
In accordance with their mandates, the ICTR and ICTY have been successful in trying a broad swath of those considered “most responsible” for core crimes (such as Milosevic, Karadzic, etc. for ICTY and Bagosora, recently Bizimungu, etc. for ICTR). The ICTR has completed 46 judgments (including 8 acquittals) and 9 fugitives remain at large. The ICTY has completed 77 judgments (including 13 acquittals) and only one fugitive remains at large (Hadzic).

Apprehending the “big fish” is an important but not sole measure of success for international tribunals. It’s essential to look beyond indictments and arrests to the impact of trials on truth and reconciliation – the murkier and loftier goals of transitional justice that we can’t really measure. The trials of Mladic and Munyagishari will contribute to the already well established historical records of the systematic and systemic nature of atrocities. In both cases, their crimes are already well known and their guilt almost certain (especially for Mladic, as some of those operating under his command have already been tried and convicted). Just as important, their trials may help counter denial and individualize guilt – both necessary to combat Serb ultra-nationalist support for those like Mladic and what remains of political and military Hutu extremism in the DRC.

The impact of trials on reconciliation, however, deserves a healthy dose of skepticism. An EU representative made a statement that the arrest “will bring down barriers to reconciliation in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” This may be possible at a national or regional level – whereby reconciliation between those victimized by the Srebrenica genocide and the Serbian government would be thin without Mladic’s arrest.

In Rwanda, despite the ICTR’s mandate reference to reconciliation, the local population is largely dismissive and indifferent to the ICTR. The elite perpetrators that appear in its courtrooms are less well known to Rwandans and the process is physically and culturally remote to them (as compared to the trials in the local Gacaca courts). While many applaud Munyagishari’s arrest, it’s worth waiting to see whether his victims in Gisenyi consider this a meaningful form of justice.

(cross-posted at Global Transitional Justice)