The Reluctant Gendarme

Why is France protecting indicted war criminals in the sector of Bosnia it controls?

MILAN Lukic may have killed more people during the Bosnian war than any other one person. Witnesses interviewed by investigators for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia implicate this thirty-three-year-old Serb in hundreds of killings of unarmed Muslim civilians in and around the Drina River town of Visegrad from 1992 to 1995.

I have interviewed many of these witnesses over the past seven years. They include two men who survived an execution by one of Lukic's "firing squads" and a woman who watched Lukic and his cousin Milos shove her mother and sister from the parapet of Visegrad's famous Ottoman bridge, over the Drina, and rake them with bullets as they tumbled into the water. Witnesses also say that Lukic and another cousin, Sredoje, imprisoned Muslim women in a rape camp, and that Lukic and his thugs incinerated scores of women, children, and old men inside two locked houses. Lukic was spotted abducting Muslim men from the Bosnian town of Srebrenica on July 12, 1995, the opening day of the largest massacre in Europe since Tito's Communists took over Yugoslavia, after World War II. Serbs have blamed Lukic for hijacking a bus and a train from which dozens of Muslims were abducted and killed, and for assassinating a leader of Visegrad's nationalist Serb political party. This grim inventory takes on added significance for tribunal prosecutors because Lukic's family includes General Sreten Lukic, for years the top commander of Serbia's police-terror operation in Kosovo, and Mikailo Lukic, the secret-police chief in Bajina Basta, a Serbian border town used as the staging area for bloody offensives against Visegrad and Srebrenica.

In the fall of 1998 a French military-intelligence officer used an informal channel to pass on a message urging the tribunal to indict Lukic. "The French were saying Lukic was causing trouble, smuggling, intimidating people, getting in the way of the French troops," one Western diplomat says. "They were saying they'd arrest Lukic within a few weeks of receiving a warrant." The tribunal prosecutor submitted a draft indictment against Lukic and two other men to a judge a few weeks after receiving the message. Acting like a grand jury, the judge handed down a sealed indictment just before Halloween, and within a day or two issued a warrant for the arrest of Lukic and the others. At this writing both the indictment and the warrant against Lukic remain sealed.

Confident tribunal investigators in Sarajevo told me just before Christmas of 1998 that they had high hopes for a speedy arrest of Lukic. The waiting continues. For months Lukic has cruised around Visegrad, often alone, in the town's hottest sports-utility vehicle, a dark-green Nissan Terrano. He owns a small café and hangs out almost every day in another, The Godfather. Practically every Serb in town knows Lukic, fears him, and can identify him. But late last year, fourteen months after the message asking for Lukic's indictment, the French military informed the tribunal that its men couldn't positively identify one of Bosnia's most notorious killers.


THE United States military and its major NATO allies have never wanted to be a police force. The purpose of an army, they say, is to kill the enemy's soldiers until the enemy submits, not to chase criminals or to make the streets and highways safe for commerce. The Dayton Accords, signed on December 14, 1995, required NATO to step between the warring armies in Bosnia and to oversee the storage of their weapons. NATO's American, British, French, and other contingents divided Bosnia up into sectors and completed much of this work within a few weeks of their arrival there, in December of 1995. But the success of the peace, as the accords say in plain English, depends on Bosnia's becoming safe for thousands of refugees to return to the homes from which they were expelled from 1992 through 1995. This means establishing law and order; and because the local authorities in many areas of Bosnia are the same thugs who drove the refugees out, it is up to NATO's Stabilization Force in Bosnia, known as SFOR, to act like a police department and arrest men indicted for war crimes.

Disagreements about this task have worsened already strained relations between France and the other major NATO allies. American diplomats and NATO military officers say that the French army has reneged on its commitments and has lagged behind the other contingents in Bosnia by refusing to arrest Milan Lukic and other Serbs linked with the most heinous violence Europe has witnessed in fifty years. Grounds for this allegation are not hard to find. France's Defense Minister, Alain Richard, has mocked the credibility of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, calling it a "spectacle." Louise Arbour, the tribunal's former chief prosecutor, has said that NATO's French sector in eastern Bosnia is a "safe haven" for Serb war criminals. [For an extensive discussion of the tribunal see "A New Kind of Justice," by Charles Trueheart.] French soldiers, unlike their counterparts in the British and American sectors of Bosnia, have become regulars at cafés frequented and sometimes owned by indicted Serbs. And a French military-intelligence officer compromised operations to drive the twice-indicted Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, from his hideout in the French sector -- something about which NATO commanders have expressed great anger.

At NATO's military headquarters in Bosnia and Belgium, off-the-record commentary about the French army's behavior is venomous. One former tribunal official says that French and U.S. diplomats working on a task force to arrest war criminals have at times berated each other using "terms they don't use even in referring to the Serbs." France's reluctance to arrest men indicted by the tribunal has baffled the diplomats, political scientists, and analysts who know the country best. "I don't have an answer for the present situation," says Stanley Hoffmann, a Harvard professor who is among the most well-respected analysts in the United States of French politics. "It is very bizarre."

So what have the French authorities done -- or not done -- to arrest Serbs indicted for war crimes? And why?

To Arrest or Not to Arrest

IT has been almost forgotten everywhere except in France that the Dayton Accords were actually signed in Paris, during a ceremony hosted by President Jacques Chirac. Annex 1A of the accords requires Bosnia's Muslim, Serb, and Croat authorities to cooperate fully with the war-crimes tribunal. The Muslims have made efforts to comply with Annex 1A; they have arrested and handed over indicted war criminals. But for the most part the nationalist Serbs and Croats have flouted Annex 1A and many other provisions of the peace agreement. They prosecuted the war in order to seize Bosnian territory, expel the Muslims from it, and merge it with Serbia and Croatia. If Dayton is abandoned and Bosnia is partitioned and the return of refugees is forgotten, these goals can still be achieved.

Even before SFOR landed in Bosnia, the Muslim authorities in Sarajevo began calling on NATO's generals to arrest indicted war criminals living in the Serb- and Croat-held areas of the country, which are outside Sarajevo's control. But during its first eighteen months in Bosnia, NATO arrested no one indicted for war crimes. With the memory of the eighteen U.S. soldiers killed in Somalia in 1993 still fresh, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had signed off on the peace agreement only after receiving assurances from the White House that U.S. troops would not be ordered to hunt down war criminals. The White House wanted to minimize the risk that U.S. soldiers would be killed, especially during the 1996 presidential campaign. So American troops sent to Bosnia were required to wear flak jackets at all times -- even in the dressing rooms beside their shower stalls. NATO soldiers were ordered to take into custody people indicted for war crimes only if they surrendered or happened to stumble into a NATO patrol or base. For some months NATO personnel actively avoided making any contact with suspected war criminals. "The mindset was that this would be a very dangerous and difficult period," William Nash, the general who led the U.S. NATO contingent into Bosnia in 1995, says. "The war-crimes thing was easily passed over. It was one of those problems we hoped would go away."

It didn't. Prodded by Louise Arbour and by Dutch diplomats, some officials on the National Security Council and in the Pentagon -- notably General Wesley Clark, who would become NATO's top military commander a year later -- began to argue that unless the killers were removed from Bosnian society, the peace agreement could not be successfully implemented and NATO's troops would be bogged down for years in a costly peacekeeping mission. The rule of law could not be established while war criminals were at large, these officials asserted. Refugees would never return home. The effects of reconstruction and development grants would be blunted, and no healthy market economy could develop, because the worst of the killers had become local-mafia leaders and were demanding a cut of everything. The major NATO governments responded to this argument in late 1996 by setting up a task force to coordinate arrest operations carried out by the Special Air Service of the British army, the U.S. Army's Delta Force, the Navy SEALs, and similar units from France, Holland, and Germany. No arrests were actually made until after the British Labour Party's election victory in May of 1997. Special Air Service commandos undertook the first seizure that July. The Dutch brought in two indicted Croats that December. And the Americans, who had not pressed for arrests until after Clark's appointment to lead NATO, made their first capture a month later.

Based in The Hague, the International Criminal Tribunal, which employs about 830 people and has an annual budget now approaching $96 million, has managed since 1994 to indict only ninety-three men publicly, and the charges against some of these defendants were ultimately dropped. Western diplomats say that about a dozen other men face sealed indictments. According to the Washington-based Coalition for International Justice, an independent watchdog organization monitoring the tribunal, thirty-eight men indicted for war crimes in Bosnia have been jailed at the Scheveningen prison, on the Dutch seacoast. Of these, fifteen surrendered voluntarily, six were arrested outside Bosnia, and seventeen were grabbed by SFOR. The British contingent has carried out ten arrest operations, and diplomats say that about eight more indicted men are still living in the British sector of Bosnia. The Americans have captured three indicted men, including a Serb general who, diplomats said, was picked up coming out of the French sector. David Scheffer, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war-crimes issues, says that "no more indicted men are living in the U.S. sector of Bosnia, though some may travel through the area unnoticed."

At press time the French army had arrested only two men, one in December and another in January. The first was a low-ranking militiaman wanted on rape charges. The second was Mitar Vasiljevic, a Serb army grunt named in the Lukic indictment. A Serb police commander in Visegrad, Vuceta Sipcic, says the French army had apparently tricked Vasiljevic by renting a house from him several months before the arrest. But NATO officials said that by arresting Vasiljevic the French had blown any chance of capturing the far bigger prize, Lukic. "They've basically compromised the sealed indictment with this action," a NATO officer says. A Western diplomat adds that tribunal officials now believe Lukic has left Visegrad and is living in Serbia.

is a contributing editor at and the author of (1998), about the Bosnian war.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; The Reluctant Gendarme - 00.04 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 4; page 91-98.