How Do You Catch a War Criminal?


This has been a bad year to be a wanted war criminal. High-profiled war criminals such as Ratko Mladic, arrested in Serbia on May 26, and Goran Hadzic, captured in Serbia on July 20, are being tried before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). All of ICTY’s 161 indicted war criminals have now been captured. Former Hutu militia leader Bernard Munyagishari was arrested in North Kivu on May 26, while six other alleged war criminals from Honduras, Pakistan, Peru, Congo, and Guatemala – all of which resided in Canada illegally – were taken into custody on July 19, after several tips from the public based on photos of 30 foreign suspects issued by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

While publicizing the fugitives’ profiles appears to be an effective strategy, it is also highly controversial. Quick deportations of the detained do not necessarily lead to a fair trial in their homeland or a successful prosecution. The capture of war criminals hinges on several factors: the involvement of several players; commitment of the arresting countries; as well as sufficient and strong evidence for successful prosecution.

War criminals such as Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, Uganda's Joseph Kony, and Libya's Muammer Gaddafi still roam freely. The leaders still enjoy support from citizens and have the resources to stay in power, but this does not make their capture impossible. Extradition treaties, military forces, and United Nations Security Council enforcement need to be supported and adjusted, considering there is no international police force. Other high-profiled war criminals such as Milosevic, Taylor, and Karadzic were apprehended in the last few years through a reward system, strong intelligence, and most of all, political pressure.

Besides a strong intelligence, the involvement of locals is needed. Karadzic, for example, could have been arrested sooner if citizens in Vienna were more attentive to his disguise. Serbian security officers eventually arrested him. In Canada, tips from the public resulted in five arrests. Moreover, the use of tracking units of special courts in cooperation with national armies could impact the apprehension process, as in the case of Munyagishari. Increasing rewards could attract professional bounty hunters in the search. Yet, this can also backfire as demonstrated in 2000, when Dragan Nikolic, who was handed over to NATO by bounty hunters, requested the ICTY to dismiss his case on the grounds that his arrest was illegal.

The largest obstacle seems to be the commitment of the arresting countries. It appears that the arrests often result when a clear benefit is presented in return for the detention.

In the case of Milosevic, the United States had set a deadline, which could not be ignored by Serbia. Failure to meet this deadline would have resulted in the loss of $50 million in aid, and the freezing of future credits and assistance by international financial institutions. Hadzic’s arrest helps to clear the path for Serbian entrance into the European Union and Taylor was caught only after the Nigerian government, a regional stakeholder, decided to turn him over under intense political pressure.

The prosecution of defendants can only be successful when enough evidence is obtained. Developing the process of collecting evidence through good a human rights monitoring system is vital. Moreover, an emphasis on forensic anthropologist and archeologist’ investigations would improve the legal case. However, high-profiled cases, in which most reports submitted by prosecutors are complete, can only fail due to corruption, lack of transparency, or strong defense arguments, such as the ICC case of Thomas Lubanga.     

All of these factors would enrich the possibilities to find and possibly ensure the conviction of suspects. However, without political commitment, catching and prosecuting war criminals will be a challenging task.         

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons