WHEN I FIRST met Radovan Karadzic, he seemed more of a well-dressed buffoon than a major war criminal. Tall and blustery, with wavy hair and double-breasted suits, he made outlandish statements that few people took at face value. His prior achievements, such as they were, did not suggest a history-making future — he had been a writer of bad poetry, a psychiatrist to losing soccer teams, a small-time embezzler of public funds.
Karadzic became the leader of Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s and made history in dark ways, but the latest twist, which occurred today, is unexpectedly bright — he has been convicted, after a long and open trial in The Hague, of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. This outcome is bright for reasons beyond the satisfaction of justice in the Balkans. At the moment, it might seem far-fetched to imagine that U.S. political and military officials will be held to account for torture and other war crimes they approved, condoned, or bore command responsibility for in the post-9/11 era. But it was even more unlikely in the 1990s to think that the hand of justice — the justice of a fair trial, not a mob’s noose or a precision-guided missile — would get close to Karadzic and his prime collaborators.
Guess what? Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader who masterminded the carnage in the Balkans, was ousted from power in 2000 and extradited to an international tribunal at The Hague. His trial was underway in 2006 when he died of a heart attack. Ratko Mladic, the military leader of Bosnian Serb forces, was extradited to The Hague in 2011 and a verdict in his case is expected soon. The unthinkable happened to the untouchable. And it has happened to others who were brought to The Hague for trial, including, just a few days ago, the leader of a Congolese rebel group that carried out a campaign of murder and pillage in the Central African Republic.
Many valid criticisms can be made of the war-crimes trials that have been conducted in the Netherlands and elsewhere. They provide victor’s justice with an international fig leaf; they are often weighted against malefactors whose skin colors are not white; they have passed over guilty parties from countries of geopolitical import. These are all true. Yet these trials and others have shown that in some cases — and it bears repeating, in cases that meet the particular requirements of the imperial age in which we live — the impossible can be accomplished.
FROM 1992 until 1995, Karadzic led the Bosnian Serbs who introduced the phrase “ethnic cleansing” into the lexicon of modern Europe, murderously pushing non-Serbs out of large swaths of Bosnia and besieging Sarajevo and other cities. At the time of his crimes and even afterward, he seemed immune to punishment — because he possessed bodyguards and protectors in Belgrade, and because the fabled international community didn’t care that much about bringing him to justice. Yet years later, justice caught up with him.
In 2014, President Obama made the headline-grabbing admission, “We tortured some folks.” Yet his long-overdue statement was not followed by the kind of legal consequences that have been required of other states and individuals that violated the laws of war. After all, it would not have been enough for the successors of Karadzic or Milosevic to simply admit that war crimes were committed and move on without trials. While a handful of low-level violators have been punished in the United States — some soldiers involved in abuses at Abu Ghraib have gone to prison, for instance — their commanders, whether with stars on their shoulders or tassels on their loafers, have lived unmolested by U.S. courts. And, for the most part, they have been honored for their service. (Here’s a video of President George W. Bush awarding a Medal of Freedom to, among others, CIA Director George Tenet, who oversaw the agency’s black sites and “enhanced interrogation techniques.”)
Many of the people who survived Karadzic’s crimes are long dead, as are many of the people who wrote about them. With this timeline in mind, it could well be a quarter century or more before a legal reckoning occurs for everything the U.S. government has done since al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four civilian jetliners on September 11, 2001. Today, for instance, Henry Kissinger enjoys the company and adulation of mainstream politicians and journalists, even as we continue to learn more about the graveyards filled a half century ago by his words and winks over Cambodia, Argentina, and Bangladesh. Kissinger is in his 90s and too hallowed in America to be affronted by a trial, so the best we can hope for might be the lacerating words of Bernie Sanders, who said in a debate with Hillary Clinton last month, “Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend.”
Of course, those were just the words of a presidential candidate, not the verdict of a court or of history, but it was something. The people who believed that Karadzic would never face justice now have something to celebrate, too. We should keep that in mind when we are told that we tortured some folks, but nobody should be held responsible for it.