Justice in an Imperfect World


By Hasan Zillur Rahim


In a perfect world, justice delayed is indeed justice denied. But we live in an imperfect world and so justice delayed sometimes has to be thought of as justice served.


Such is the case with Serbian general Ratko Mladic, architect of the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim children, women and men in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica between July 10 and July 13 in 1995. Sixteen years after committing genocide and crimes against humanity, Mladic was arrested in Serbia on May 26 and awaits extradition to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.


Srebrenica has become synonymous with mass murder and ethnic cleansing, comparable in intensity to Nazi atrocities against the Jews during World War II. Together with Radovan Karadzic, currently awaiting his own trial for crimes against humanity, Mladic demanded that his troops use rape as a weapon of war. The siege of Sarajevo that the two orchestrated lasted from 1992-1995 and took the lives of an estimated 10,000 Roman Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims. The cruelty was unrelenting, the savagery unmatched.


Mladic was driven by a sense of himself as a savior of his people and as the avenger of historical events that took place almost two centuries ago when Ottoman Turks ruled what is now Serbia. The death of his 23-year-old daughter by suicide in 1994 only increased his thirst for revenge.


Mladic’s arrest, and that of Karadzic in July 2008, sends a strong signal to the world’s despots that their days are numbered, that the long arm of international law will eventually flush them out from any dirty corner of the world they may hide in, and expose them to justice.


This is particularly important for Arab tyrants who, for decades, have been killing, torturing and imprisoning their people at will while looting the national treasury for supporting their sybaritic lifestyles.


The dictator Ben Ali fled the country when Tunisians rose in revolt against him in January this year. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and his sons were arrested in April for corruption, crimes and using deadly violence against protesters.


As long as the rule of law, and not vengeance, dictates the fate of these modern-day pharaohs, there is reason for optimism. But much remains to be done in a region where hereditary monarchy and oligarchy seems to have become the norm.


Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi has been killing Libyans with impunity since he seized power in 1969. He has never tolerated any dissent and deployed spies and secret police to subjugate his people. Since the uprising against him in February, he has killed thousands of Libyans with the help of mercenaries. He has gone into hiding as NATO targets him and his sycophants in and around Tripoli. International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Luis-Moreno Ocampo is seeking arrest warrants against Gadhafi, his son Saif al-Islam and spy chief Abdullah al-Sensussi for crimes against humanity.


In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh refuses to bow to the will of the people, clinging to power that he has held for 32 years. Hundreds of Yemenis have been killed and there is no doubt that more will die in the coming days as tribal wars intensify because of Saleh’s intransigence.


The situation is grimmest in Syria where President Bashar Assad has let loose a shadowy, mafia-style gang of gunmen to kill protesters. These cold-blooded killers openly shoot people that they think are a danger to Assad’s regime. They seize whatever they like, be it cars, houses, even women. So far, Assad’s security forces have killed over 1,000 Syrians.


When the Syrian uprising began in March in the southern city of Daraa, Assad ordered his troops to lay siege to the city, as Mladic did in Sarajevo, shutting off electricity, water and telephones. The army arrested schoolchildren who scrawled ant-government graffiti on walls and imprisoned hundreds of young men simply because of their age. There is precedent in the family. Hafez Assad, Bashar Assad’s father, laid siege to the city of Hama in 1982 and killed some twenty thousand Syrians as the world stood silently by.


In a speech on the United States' policy on the Middle East and North Africa on May 19, President Obama said, "The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests, release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests, they must allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Daraa, and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition."


While they lauded Obama’s words, Syrian-Americans invited to listen to the speech at the State Department said the President did not go far enough. “He should have asked Bashar Assad to step down immediately or face the consequences,” one of them said.


The Assads of the world attempt to justify their continuity by citing their indispensability, but as Charles de Gaulle observed, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”


ICC’s Luis-Moreno Ocampo must urgently seek arrest warrants also against Bashar Assad and his brother Maher Assad, head of the ruthless Republican Guard. Under their orders, troops continue to fire indiscriminately on peaceful protesters and funeral marchers throughout Syria. Is there anyone who hasn’t seen by now video evidence of the grotesquely mutilated body of 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb?


What these dictators never anticipated is the reach of social media. Confronted with Twitter, Facebook and the like, they are unnerved, even as the killing goes on. When government-appointed goons fire on protesters, the image is instantly broadcast around the globe. When a prisoner is tortured, the act is caught on camera and becomes instant news.


The young and the web-savvy generation have found in technology a powerful enabler. Open “the Syrian Revolution 2011” page in Facebook and you will find fearless freedom fighters posting fresh video clips about every 10 minutes. As photographs of bloodied young men and women scroll by, we realize that we are witnessing a war-crimes documentary in real-time.


Generals and dictators who commit genocide can no longer escape justice. It may have taken decades in the pre-social media era but now it’s a matter of months before they are forced to pay the price for their brutality in courts of law. This is the new reality.