THE HORRIFIC civil war in Syria defies easy comparison, but the closest analogy of recent times might be the conflict that engulfed Yugoslavia almost exactly a quarter-century ago. As that multiethnic communist federation began to splinter in 1991, its Croat, Serb and Muslim inhabitants battled over territory and physical assets — with the worst savagery taking place in the former Yugoslav republic Bosnia, where ethnic groups had previously lived most closely intermingled.
Backed by the government of the largest Yugoslav republic, Serbia, and the remnants of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav national army, Bosnia’s Serbs staged a brutal campaign of “ethnic cleansing” aimed mainly at Bosnia’s Muslims, in which tens of thousands lost their lives and many more were forced to flee.
For Europe and the United States, the genocidal conflict aroused both memories of World War II and a sense that the perpetrators of this generation’s war crimes must be held legally accountable. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was born under United Nations auspices two years before the Bosnia war ended in 1995 — and it’s still in business today. The ICTY, as it is known, has indicted 161 defendants, including former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, for genocide, torture and other crimes against humanity. It has convicted 80 of them and acquitted 18, while 36 cases have been dismissed or terminated, including that of Mr. Milosevic, who died during his trial. An additional 25 cases are pending, about half of which were transferred from the ICTY to the newly capable governments in ex-Yugoslavia.
Of the convictions, none is more important than that of the man whom the ICTY sentenced Thursday to 40 years in prison: Radovan Karadzic, the political leader of the bloody 1992 Serb uprising against Bosnia’s internationally recognized government. Mr. Karadzic had managed to evade arrest until 2008, when he was discovered living in Belgrade, disguised, bizarrely, as a bearded faith healer. Now his nearly eight-year trial has established his complicity in some of the most shocking crimes of recent European history: the forcible mass expulsion of non-Serbs from their villages, followed by internment in squalid concentration camps; the deliberate shelling and shooting of civilians in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo; and the roundup and murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at the town of Srebrenica in 1995.
Mr. Karadzic protested that all of this was just the inevitable havoc of war. The tribunal found instead that the suffering and bloodshed were the eminently foreseeable, and indeed intended, results of plans that Mr. Karadzic laid as part of a “joint criminal enterprise,” whose military leader, Ratko Mladic, is also on trial at the ICTY, with a conclusion likely by next year.
There is much to criticize about the ICTY, especially the snail-like pace of its proceedings, which followed the long delays in arresting Mr. Karadzic and Mr. Mladic. Yet the tribunal’s work, now crowned by the Karadzic conviction, has nevertheless helped consolidate democracy in the former Yugoslavia by establishing a measure of justice that was retrospective without being vengeful. The wheels of justice grind slowly, but grind they do.