|By Ewen Allison
In late July 1995, after pounding the town of Zepa for days with artillery, rockets, and machine guns, Gen. Ratko Mladic, commander of the attacking Bosnian Serb forces, accepted the town’s surrender. Mladic had earlier demanded that the town surrender all men of fighting age as prisoners of war, and promised to escort all women, children, and elderly to government lines and safety. Despite the pleas of Zepa’s mayor, Mehmed Hajric, NATO and UN forces refused to intervene. Finally, Mayor Hajric took a white flag in hand and went to Mladic to negotiate the surrender of Zepa. He and three companions were seized by the Serbs and imprisoned in the neighboring town of Rogatica. Shortly thereafter the Bosnian forces took Zepa.
After fifteen days of imprisonment, Hajric managed to escape. However, according to the Hague Conventions on Land Warfare of 1899 and 1907, which remain in force and are considered part of conventional international humanitarian law, Hajric enjoyed a special protection. He had the status of parlementaire and could not, without reason, be arrested and detained.
A parlementaire is a person who is authorized by one party to a conflict to speak with another party to the conflict, and who travels under a white flag. Hajric met both requirements—he had the authority to appoint himself as negotiator, and did, in fact, carry a white flag.
Although the rules on parlementaires evolved during earlier centuries and were codified in the Hague Conventions, they apply today. A parlementaire may be accompanied by a flag bearer, an interpreter, and a trumpeter or drummer. The commanding officer to whom a parlementaire is sent is not required to meet him and may take measures to prevent the parlementaire from spying.
Significantly for Hajric’s case, a parlementaire may not be directly attacked, and almost always has the right not to be arrested, detained, or executed. A parlementaire loses these rights if he abuses his mission—by spying or committing a hostile act. Even if accused of such abuses, he retains the right to a fair trial and humane treatment.
Hajric, however, had done nothing amiss. His detention was unlawful.