Finding virtue after a war crimes verdict

The conviction of the former Bosnian Serb commander brings justice to many, but also a lesson about equality – the very virtue needed for peace in the Balkans.

A woman reacts as she watches a Nov. 22 television broadcast of the court proceedings of former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A special court set up by the United Nations during the Balkan wars of the 1990s made its final and most important verdict on Nov. 22. It found Ratko Mladić, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb military, guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. While the trial was the most significant since the Nuremberg tribunal, it did not end with any general message about some of Europe’s worst atrocities in the 20th century.

Rather the chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, simply said afterward, “Mladić’s guilt is his and his alone.”

The conviction, he added, is not a verdict against the Serbian people.

His comments will be as important to the future of Europe as the trial’s outcome. Justice is always individual, a point that is especially important when an injustice like genocide is committed in the name of false prejudice against a group.

In Mr. Mladić’s case, the gross generalization was that all Muslims must be killed or kicked out of Bosnia in the name of a “greater Serbia.” During the trial, he also justified his wartime actions as necessary to defend “Serbia and the Serbian people.”

Such collectivized hate, driven by the ultranationalism that erupted after the 1991 breakup of the former Yugoslavia, ended with a massacre of some 8,000 men and boys from the village of Srebrenica in 1995 as well as with mass killings in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

The prosecutor’s point about individual responsibility is critical in the long struggle of ensuring peace in the Balkans. Tensions remain high among the region’s religious and ethnic groups. Yet in many once-embattled neighborhoods, Muslims and Serbs – as well as victims and perpetrators – have learned to get along. They are trying to restore the moral universe of seeing each other as individuals first.

This equality between neighbors has now been echoed by the Mladić verdict – that all are equal before the law.

Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University, recently traveled to Bosnia to write a book on moral virtues, and he interviewed Bosnians struggling to get along. “How is it that forgiveness works in these micro-settings?” he asked.

One person, who witnessed a massacre in his village, told him how he has learned to live with some of the perpetrators. He said, “I’ve learned not to generalize. That is, there is no such thing as a guilty Serb in general.”

He refused to make a false aggregation, preferring to take each individual as an individual – just the way that justice was meted out for Mladić.

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