The long-awaited ruling was the last for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), set up to prosecute crimes in the Balkans conflicts of the early 1990s.
Judges found Mladic guilty of ten of the eleven charges he was facing, including the genocide of 8000 Bosnian Muslims in the infamous mass killings at Srebrenica in July 1995.
The life sentence, heavier than last year’s 40-year sentence handed to former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, brought satisfaction to relatives of Srebrenica victims.
“I am very satisfied, even though I lost my son,” said Redziba Salihovic, a Bosniak woman reacting to the ruling on Bosnian television.
“Today I am an overjoyed mother, because justice is done. I salute the tribunal in The Hague, and everyone who fought for the truth.”
Mladic however was not convicted on was a second charge of genocide, which covered crimes over three years of war campaigns under his command.
“Eight thousand people died at Srebrenica, and something like 80,000 people died in all these other atrocities, the vast majority of them civilians. And what I’m hearing is, ‘what about us?’” said Ed Vulliamy, author of The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia the Reckoning.
“Basically three years of concentration camps, mass murder, mass ethnic cleansing, mass rape, wholesale destruction of non-Serb houses, mosques, Catholic churches, and basically the removal of an entire population that wasn’t Bosnian Serb: if that isn’t genocide, what is?”
Looking at the legacy of the international tribunal
While an expected appeal is likely to extend the mandate of the ICTY, which is scheduled to close this year, the ruling was cause for many involved to begin commenting on the tribunal’s legacy.
“Today's judgement is a milestone in the tribunal’s history and for international justice,” said ICTY chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz. “Mladic was one of the first persons to be indicted by this office and the last to be convicted.”
While often criticised for taking too long and accused by all sides of bowing to political pressure, some observers believe the ICTY has set a precedent for international justice.
“The judges took a lot of time to examine all the circumstances, all the facts, to hear hundreds of thousands of testimonies, and up to the end, we saw with the reaction of the accused, we saw how the tribunal tried to be impartial,” said Florence Bellivier, law professor at the University of Paris at Nanterre and deputy secretary general at the International Federation of Human Rights.
Serbian President Aleksander Vucic, a former supporter of Mladic’s war campaigns who now backs his country’s bid to join the European Union, illustrated the mix of feelings in Serbia towards the tribunal.
He said the court had been biased against Serbs but added there was no justification for the crimes that were committed.
“We are ready to accept our responsibility,” Vucic said, “while the others are not.”
The Serbian president urged the country to move on from the conflict.
“Farewell to all those who want to return us to the past; we want to go to the future.”