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Radovan Karadzic: The Defense Case Essay

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Updated: Feb 26th, 2022

In the present case, the former president of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadzic, is being tried for his actions during the Bosnian War. During the conflict, numerous war crimes took place, most importantly attacks on civilians. A particularly outstanding event was the Srebrenica massacre, during which Republika Srpska military gathered and executed thousands of Muslim men. The prosecution seeks to attribute the tragedy to Karadzic, as he was the president and highest military authority in the entity at the time. As such, it has indicted him with twenty counts of genocide, crime against humanity, and violation of the laws or customs of war with relation to the massacre. With that said, the evidence it has currently provided of Karadzic’s involvement in the events is limited and insufficient to reach a conclusion at the moment.

This section of the defense’s argument concerns the second count of the indictment. It is classified as a crime against humanity perpetrated via summary executions of Muslim civilians in and around Potocari, Tuzla, and Karakaj between 12 and 22 July 1995 (Goldstone, 1995). The prosecution alleges that through his acts and omissions that enabled the tragedy, the defendant committed extermination, which falls under Article 5(b) of the Statute of the Tribunal (United Nations, 2009). However, it is necessary to elaborate on Radovan Karadzic’s role in the massacre before a decision on his guilt can be made. As the supreme commander of the Republika Srpska military, he would nominally be held responsible for the actions of the forces under his command. With that said, depending on his degree of involvement, the charge may not be valid under the Statute of the Tribunal.

The gathering and executions of Muslims in Srebrenica were carried out by forces under the direct command of General Ratko Mladic. He was the one who dispensed the orders, and therefore, there is little question of his need to answer for them. So far, the prosecution has failed to supply sufficient evidence that Mladic’s actions came from Karadzic’s instructions or that the president of Republika Srpska was aware of his subordinate’s actions. As Goldstone (1995) confirms, the superior officer can only be held responsible for their subordinates’ actions if they knew or had reason to know of the criminal intent and did not take reasonable measures to prevent the crime. As such, the defense will proceed to establish the argument that the massacre was perpetrated without the knowledge of Radovan Karadzic.

To understand the events that took place in Srebrenica, it is first necessary to analyze the context that let the events happen. Per Joseph (2016), Srebrenica, a town located within the Republika Srpska, was designated as a safe haven for Muslims by the UN and protected by Dutch forces. Dominated by Orthodox Bosnian Serbs and opposed to the multicultural Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina that had a plurality of Muslims, the country was likely to be distrustful of Muslims within its borders. The United Nations provided safety for them and helped them gather and live peacefully in Srebrenica under the condition that they would not participate in the conflict. As such, there was nominally little reason for Republika Srpska to attack the location, as it would achieve no strategic objective while inviting international ire.

However, the UN forces failed in their duties of keeping Srebrenica out of the conflict. As Fleming (2016) notes, Muslim town defenders would regularly raid nearby Serbian villages with substantial brutality, leading to calls for retribution. For some time, the government tolerated these incidents, as it was occupied with its ongoing wars. However, it remained aware of the danger to its citizens and increasingly convinced of the UN and NATO’s ineffectiveness (Fleming, 2016). As such, Republika Srpska, headed by Karadzic, took action to bring the situation under control and stop the raiding. There is no reason to assume that its purpose would be to slaughter the residents of the enclave wholesale, as that would generate few to no benefits. Instead, the forces that entered Srebrenica intended to eliminate the raiding threat, which likely only comprised a minimal proportion of the population.

With this goal in mind, the question arose of how the operation may be carried out. The attackers enjoyed support in the community, which sheltered them from both Serbs and UN forces. As such, an effort to root them out would be largely ineffective due to the impossibility of distinguishing combatants from civilians. The government under Karadzic recognized this issue and decided to resolve it with a relocation of the enclave’s inhabitants. Though the combatants would largely remain in the community, any equipment they had would be left behind, and they could be managed better, with raids recognized and prevented. The solution was still flawed and possibly ineffective, but it would resolve the problem and protect the Serbian population while minimizing the loss of life. This decision can be attributed to Karadzic and indicates his lack of intent to perpetrate extermination.

However, the massacre took place, nevertheless, despite the relocation taking place as planned. The operation did not encounter much resistance, either; Fleming (2016) confirms that winning the enclave did not require a massive loss of innocent lives. It is likely that Mladic had sole authority over the operation and did not necessarily contact Karadzic over it. The president had other duties more pressing than the suppression of an insurgency hotspot. There was no apparent reason for him to assume that a crime against humanity would take place, either. While the mutual hatred of Bosnian Muslims and Orthodox Serbs was well-known, there were no prior cases that could lead to the assumption that it would lead to wholesale slaughter as opposed to individual cases of misconduct. They could be handled according to existing army rules and regulations, which constituted adequate intervention.

What took place in Srebrenica instead was the gathering and execution of all men of age to be potential Muslim combatants. As Goldstone (1995) affirms, the army broadcasted peaceful messages and promises of humane treatment in accordance with the Geneva Convention throughout. This effort suggests that the Srebrenica massacre was an event carried out under centralized command. With that said, mass murder would not benefit Karadzic’s government in any way. The defense asserts that Ratko Mladic or his command staff carried the crime out under their own initiative for a reason not yet established, possibly ethnic hatred. Karadzic would not have agreed to such an act if he were informed of it due to the damage it would do to his cause. As such, he cannot be held culpable for the crime as he was either unaware or ordered his subordinates to desist and was disobeyed. To support its indictment, the prosecution has to present evidence of his awareness of the impending tragedy and support or indifference toward it.


Fleming, C. M. (2016). Clausewitz’s timeless trinity: A framework for modern war. Taylor & Francis.

Goldstone, R. J. (1995).

Joseph, P. (Ed.). (2016). The SAGE encyclopedia of war: Social science perspectives. SAGE Publications.

United Nations. (2009).

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