CHICAGO – On March 24, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced Radovan Karadžić – the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the 1990s war in the Balkans – to 40 years in prison for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It is a judgment that will profoundly influence international law, deter those who might otherwise commit atrocities, and open the possibility of political reconciliation in Bosnia. Lawless leaders, such as those in Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, Russia, and the Islamic State, have just been reminded of their vulnerability to international justice.
And would-be war criminals are not the only ones who should think carefully about the verdict. Karadžić’s incendiary views – “Muslims cannot live with others,” he once said – still resonate in dark corners of a frightened Europe struggling to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees and in the nativist presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in the United States.
Twenty years ago, in 1996, I was senior counsel to Madeleine Albright, then America’s ambassador to the United Nations. We pushed hard in the US National Security Council for Karadžić’s arrest; he had been indicted by the ICTY a year earlier, along with Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić, whose trial in The Hague is ongoing. For years, however, both men eluded capture, in part because many NATO and US officials were not yet prepared to accept the risks associated with apprehending them.
That timidity was a mistake. For years, it allowed Karadžić and Mladić to influence Bosnian politics and swagger in defiance of the rule of law. Their trials, following their arrests in Serbia less than a decade ago, have revealed evidence of acts of savagery not seen in Europe since World War II.