Mladic verdict a reminder of just how close we always are to barbarity

Yesterday morning, we got a reminder of just how close we always are to turning on one another.

Sometimes we can comfort ourselves by thinking that we cannot let happen what happened almost 80 years ago in the pursuit of a better race, that we have become much more sophisticated now than those who let that happen then; that we cannot be as foolish or easily led as those who cheered on the fanatics who brought this world to war.

We sometimes give ourselves too much credit for thinking that we are far removed from all of that, that our ability to read the nuances of modern politics possesses so much more finesse than that of our forefathers who saw this world into two major wars.

But we are not. Do not for a second think that if push came to shove and we were provoked aggressively enough, that we would turn to our better nature and resist the jingoism of Us and Them.

We only have to go back two decades to remind ourselves of that.

Or even only a day.

This week in a courtroom in The Hague, an old man was led into a room, a man who still had the bravado of his earlier years, when all those times we saw his strutting around on TV, with his military boots and his square jaw.

But yesterday, Ratko Mladic was not the one doing the bidding, though he tried to leave his mark on proceedings by spewing invective at the event and the institutions.

More than 20 years after the Srebrenica massacre, Mladic was found guilty at the United Nations-backed international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY ) in The Hague of 10 offences involving extermination, murder and persecution of civilian populations.

He was chief of staff of Bosnian Serb forces from 1992 until 1996, during the ferocious civil wars and ethnic cleansing that followed the break-up of the Yugoslav state.

The one-time fugitive from international justice faced 11 charges, two of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and four of violations of the laws or customs of war. He was cleared of one count of genocide, but found guilty of all other charges. The separate counts related to “ethnic cleansing” operations in Bosnia, sniping and shelling attacks on besieged civilians in Sarajevo, the massacre of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica and taking UN personnel hostage in an attempt to deter Nato airstrikes.

Among those present was Fikret Ali, the Bosnian who was photographed as an emaciated prisoner behind the wire of a prison camp in 1992. “Justice has won and the war criminal has been convicted,” he said after the verdict. Others were reduced to tears by the judge’s description of past atrocities.

The trial in The Hague, which took 530 days across more than four years, is arguably the most significant war crimes case in Europe since the Nuremberg trials, in part because of the scale of the atrocities involved. Almost 600 people gave evidence for the prosecution and defence, including survivors of the conflict.

For many of us who felt that the post-war institutions could never allow such genocide to happen on our watch, take a look back at this recent history and see how we can be led down this road again.

Three years ago, we might have felt we were less likely. There was no Trump, no Brexit, no Farage.

We now know that we can be led to vote for and choose leaders based not only on logic but emotion.

Where these war crimes happened is about a three-hour flight from where you read this today in the west of Ireland.

Let us never think it can not happen again. Each of us has a role to play in ensuring that the role of the Other is minimised in our society and that we all try to develop an empathy for each other and co-exist in a world that will be there long after we are gone.


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