Once a source of war in the Balkans, Serbia took a big step last week in dealing with its past and securing a place in the European Union. For the first time, its prosecutors arrested eight of the alleged killers in a massacre that was the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
The 1995 killing of more than 7,000 men and boys from the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia has hung over Serbia for nearly two decades. It has tested the country’s ability to mete out justice, stabilize its democracy, and make peace with its neighbors.
In recent years, as Serbia has sought to join the EU, it finally started to cooperate with an international tribunal set up to deal with war crimes committed during the ethnic-driven wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. Serbia has handed over the accused masterminds of the massacre, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. But pressure from the country’s ardent nationalists has long prevented Serbian prosecutors from rounding up suspects in such war crimes.
These latest arrests bring the prospect of Serbs witnessing a domestic trial concerning the Srebrenica atrocity around the 20th anniversary of the incident this July. The massacre shocked the world’s conscience, leading to new rules of intervention in humanitarian crises. But Serbia has avoided confronting its role, either in the killings or the coverup. The arrests are a needed step as the international tribunal is due to end its work next year and to hand down verdicts soon for Mr. Mladic and Mr. Karadzic.
In recent decades, countries from Rwanda to Cambodia that experienced mass killings have had to come up with truth-telling ways to reconcile with their horrific past. Acknowledging mistakes helps lay a cornerstone for rule of law, democracy, and sustainable peace. It can end impunity and bring justice to survivors. Most of all, it establishes the idea that society must operate by principle rather than by arbitrary rule and violence.
Serbia has far to go to find a place in Europe. Its ties with Kosovo and other Balkan nations remain difficult. But this latest step in coming to terms with its past could build a lasting peace in a corner of Europe that triggered two major wars in the 20th century. The past need not be prologue if its lessons are learned.