For Europe, a light of truth in the Balkans

A guilty verdict of genocide for a leading figure in the 1990s Balkan Wars serves as a lesson for Europe as it struggles with mass violence today.

Bida Smajlovic (R) and Sajma Smajlovic watch the televised genocide trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre as he appears before the U.N. tribunal in The Hague, as they gather at Smajlovic's house in Potocari near Srebrenica March 24.

Europe is feeling low these days over its inability to deal with violence by both Muslim terrorists and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. It should take heart. Last week an international court sent a strong message of justice – and truth – about the last eruption of violence on the Continent, the Balkan Wars of 1992-95.

A United Nations court in The Hague was finally able to convict Radovan Karadzic, who was once the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, mainly against the Bosnian Muslim community. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison. The verdict signals a possible similar outcome in the court’s trial of Gen. Ratko Mladic, who led the Bosnian Serb Army.

The two Serbian leaders are held most responsible for the 1995 massacre of more than 7,500 Muslim men and boys from the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. (The Monitor received a Pulitzer Prize for helping expose the massacre, which was the greatest atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust.)

More than meting out punishment, the Karadzic trial documented the truth about the kind of violent nationalism that was exploited for political gain after the 1991 breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Many of Mr. Karadzic’s victims welcome his long imprisonment. But the detailed record of heinous crimes will add to the steady if slow process of reconciling Bosnians as well as others in the Balkan states.

Truth telling is a key step toward removing a culture of impunity. And for a corner of Europe with diverse nationalities and religions, it is also critical to preventing human rights abuses.

While outside influence in the Balkan Wars was essential, it is the people of the region who must come to grips with the past in order to build a future based on universal principles. Serbia, which was the source of much of the conflict, has made some progress toward owning up to its violent past. It still has far to go. Its hope of joining the European Union, as well as successive elections, has kept it on a path toward embracing the concept of human rights for all. Last year, it published its first national strategy against war crimes.

And the governments of Bosnia and Serbia have made efforts to build institutions for reconciliation. The court verdict adds to this progress. It also shines a light for all of Europe as it deals with current struggles over mass violence in the name of ethnicity or religion.

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