In a world rampant with terrorism, Thursday’s verdict in the Radovan Karadzic trial in The Hague is a victory for international justice. The former Bosnian Serb leader was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for leading a reign of genocidal terror during the Bosnian war.
Karadzic was found guilty of directing the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1995, leading the violent and systematic expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Muslims from cities and towns in Bosnia, conducting the siege of Sarajevo in which over 4,000 civilians were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb snipers and artillery, and carrying out the seizure of 300 UN peacekeepers as hostages in order to prevent NATO from using air strikes to protect Bosnian Muslim civilians.
More than 150,000 people were killed in the four-year war in Bosnia. The genocide condemned by the tribunal was committed by the Bosnian Serb leadership to terrorize and exterminate Bosnian Muslims. Karadzic’s military commander, General Ratko Mladić, is still on trial for his role at Srebrenica, and the Serbian overlord, Slobodan Milošević, was tried earlier for orchestrating the entire criminal enterprise, but died before his case could be completed.
The tribunal was greeted with scorn when it was established in 1993. The war in Bosnia was raging and peacekeeping and negotiating activities by the UN, the European Union and the United States were proving ineffective. The tribunal was regarded at first as a fig leaf to hide the international community’s lack of strategy or political will to end the conflict. The obstacles faced by this effort to build the first institution of international justice since the Nuremburg trials were enormous.
But those of us who worked to create the tribunal believed it could raise the cost of criminal leadership and hold accountable those responsible for the massive crimes at the heart of the war. Working with then-US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright, I was the first international diplomat to reach the survivors of the Srebrenica massacre. The evidence they produced of the genocide committed by Karadzic and Mladić was instrumental in bringing about the UN Security Council’s authorization of the NATO intervention leading to the Dayton Peace Conference that finally ended the war.
The Karadzic verdict justifies the long years of effort that went into making the tribunal an effective institution of justice. Eighty indictments have been issued over the tribunal’s 23 years, leading to the trials and convictions of nearly one hundred major perpetrators of war crimes. Hundreds of thousands of pages of documentary evidence and testimony have been compiled to create a painstaking record of the destruction of Yugoslavia and the lives of many living there. The tribunal stands with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa as an essential instrument of truth telling.
Justice for Bosnia has been slow, uneven, and incomplete. The victims will never be compensated. But survivors can take solace from the knowledge that those who committed humankind’s most heinous crimes are being held accountable. And the cloud of collective guilt that has engulfed Bosnian Serb ethnic groups as a result of the actions of their political leaders can now finally be lifted as a result of the conviction of Karadzic for crimes that had previously been loosely attributed to all Bosnian Serbs.
International justice is a partial response to the terrorism of our time. Neither ISIS nor Syrian President Bashar Assad will be brought to justice any time soon. But as Martin Luther King famously declared, “the arc of the moral universe is long, and bends toward justice.” The Karadzic verdict shows that through justice civilization can eventually assert itself against those who seek to destroy it.
John Shattuck is president and rector of Central European University. He served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 1993 to 1998.