The capture of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is unqualified good news. Despite the many Balkan pundits who are eager to destroy any hope of his getting an unadulterated trial, he was half the duumvirate that oversaw the worst atrocities committed on European soil in half a century. The other half, Ratko Mladic, is still on the run.
What Karadzic’s defense might be is obscure, unless it is that brutality, revenge and the fog of war have long been commonplace in the Balkans. It is not an argument that will appeal to the thousands of Muslim and Croat victims of his fraudulent Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Atrocities also committed against Serbs by Croats, notably in Krajina, in no way excuse the systematic Serb killings, especially in Sarajevo and Srebrenica.
That Karadzic and Mladic have roamed free for 13 years since their indictment by The Hague tribunal in 1995 has been a disgrace both to the international rulers of Bosnia, including Britain’s Paddy Ashdown, and to Serbia itself. But now, with a newly elected government in power, a sort of closure is in sight.
Visitors to Belgrade during the 1990s were baffled by the contrast between the European civility of its Serb citizens and their blank refusal to see wrong in what was happening in their name in the federated states of Bosnia and Kosovo. It was like the dismissive attitude of many Britons to colonial peoples in Africa and Asia. After the fall of Tito’s communism, the Yugoslav cosmopolis disintegrated into its former parts. The release of hatred was appalling.
All who care for peace in the Balkans must now hope that Serbia can put the past behind it.
It has paid an awful price for voting for Milosevic in 1990, including the recent loss of Kosovo and Montenegro. It has had to watch regional neighbors such as Slovenia, Croatia and Bulgaria join the EU while its European credentials remained beyond the pale.
This year the Serbs rejected, admittedly by a narrow margin, a return to introspective chauvinism, electing a president and government of pro-western inclinations. The early capture of Karadzic may well have been precipitated by the prospect of European enlargement coming to a halt after the Irish veto. Serbs may not desperately want the EU, but they desperately want to be loved.
Not only Karadzic and Serbia are now on trial. So is the concept of international justice at The Hague, reduced to bureaucratic farce by the handling of Slobodan Milosevic in 2002.
That trial was supranational jurisdiction at its most flatulent and inert, a monument to the maxim that slow justice is no justice. The prosecution case took three years and by the end in 2006, both the judge and the defendant were dead.
What the court really achieved in the case of Milosevic and the 44 other Serbs brought to trial must be moot. He died in captivity, but the process did much to stir fury among the Serbs that the Croats and Kosovans — who could be no less cruel in their ethnic cleansing — had got off lightly at The Hague.
The case for war crimes justice in its present internationalized form remains in question.
A burgeoning army of jurists points out that “international” crime against humanity is a meaningful concept and many countries lack the security or the competence to conduct criminal trials, which is true. They also say that the prospect of a Hague indictment deters the worst of dictators from the worst of atrocities, though it hard to see this deterrence in practice.