By the end of the cold war, Europe thought it had seen the last of its Hitlers, Stalins, and Napoleons. Then Slobodan Milosevic ignited the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Now his death, just before the end of his trial, challenges Europe and the world to ask if justice has been served to ward off more tyrants.
To most Europeans, Milosevic's guilt was not in doubt. The trial at the tribunal in The Hague was designed in part to persuade the many Serbs who still do not acknowledge the violent nationalism and ethnic slaughter of his dictatorial reign.
His trial was thus a vehicle for the truth of his wars to emerge and then to administer punishment on him - a justice that would help survivors find peace and also deter would-be dictators.
His passing may make these hoped-for results less possible, but much of the truth of his wartime actions has been brought to light, while the trials of other war criminals in the Balkans war - both Serb and non-Serb - will hand out jail sentences and put a spotlight on many atrocities. (Still undone is the capture of the lead perpetrators of the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys from the town of Srebrenica.)
Most of all, the Milosevic trial, while not completed, has served a purpose beyond that of bestowing justice. It has also highlighted the real task for Europe and the world: the need to identify and share the common values that can sustain families, societies, governments, and international relations in a peaceful fashion.
The Serbs, who rose up against Milosevic after his wartime defeat and then turned him over to the international tribunal, recognized Serbia's need to accept more civilized values for itself. This after decades under communism, then the rampant nationalism of Milosevic, not to mention the Serbs' historic hatred (and fear) of other ethnic or religious groups. Universal values, such as tolerance and democracy, are better serving the Serbs today.
The process of civilizing Europe's many diverse peoples still continues and not just in the Balkans, whose nations are inching closer to joining the European Union. In an age of terrorism conducted in the name of Islam, Europe must come to terms with its various Muslim minorities and their Islamic ways. Politicians must not follow Milosevic's path and use anti-Muslim feelings to gain power and keep it.
Instead, Europe must find the common spiritual values that connect Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other faiths that have each created great civilizations over time but which now, in a quickly globalizing world, must learn how to be be interdependent. That's the history of the world in a nutshell.
Most other slaughtering dictators of the 20th century escaped justice before their deaths. Cambodia's Pol Pot died in his jungle hut in 1998. Lesser tyrants, such as Indonesia's Suharto, are alive and eluding justice. Saddam Hussein, however, may soon hear a guilty verdict in his trial conducted in Iraq with foreign help.
The use of "transnational justice" at war-crimes tribunals is only one civilizing force in the world. For sure, the sound of those gavels will echo across borders and time. But humanity must do more than mete out justice to save itself from dictators.