Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author. This article has been updated to reflect the latest developments in this story.
It will be 25 years this Christmas since I learned what genocide smelled like.
Like nothing I’d ever experienced before, it was an assault on my senses.
The military commander responsible, Ratko Mladic, has today finally learned his fate. It has taken too long to see justice served.
It was a frosty day in December 1992, early on in Bosnia Herzegovina’s three-year civil war. The place was Srebrenica: a village in the mountains close to the border with Serbia.
Serbian war criminals controlled the roads into the village and the mountains surrounding it. They had it under a medieval-style siege.
They kept journalists and aid workers waiting for a week, parked at the roadside next to half-harvested fields of rotting corn stalks and decaying pumpkins. Then, late one afternoon, they finally let us in, along with a handful of UN peacekeepers and a few measly aid trucks.
We’d seen more food decaying in those wintry farm fields than the Serbs were letting into the enclave. Even then, it was clear they were trying to starve the villagers into submission.
What sticks in my mind the most about our few hours inside Srebrenica is the smell.
I intrinsically link it to evil. Writing about it now still triggers a gag reflex.
Srebrenica had become a pitiful place: a long hamlet of sorrow snaking up a cold narrow valley. Under siege, it was silenced and cut off from the outside world.
Time has done little to dull my memories of walking into the crowded makeshift medical center that was once a library.
Wafts of gangrenous infection wrapped in the rancid stench of overused blood-soaked bandages fused with the smell of a fear fed on the emptiness of hunger. Words really don’t come close.
As darkness fell, fear grew to panic among residents. The media, aid workers and UN peacekeepers were leaving – and with us, a slender totem of international concern was slipping from their grasp.
Within months of our visit, an ad hoc UN tribunal would be established: the ICTY, or International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia. Its aim was to end the war, spread reconciliation and bring war criminals to justice.
It would ultimately indict 161 people, call 5,000 witnesses, hold sessions on 11,000 days and produce 2,000,000 pages of transcripts and documents. But it was never powerful enough to stem the slaughter and save the people of Srebrenica.
They would endure three freezing winters and two scorching summers of merciless siege and shelling before Bosnian Serb Soldiers under Mladic’s orders would over the space of two days murder 7,000 Muslim men and boys – including many of those we met.
Srebrenica was the single biggest slaughter of innocents in Europe since World War II. It was the bloodiest tip of an ugly iceberg of slaughter sustained over three years.
As Yugoslavia – a post World War I construct – tore itself apart, religiously and ethnically distinct Bosnian, Serb and Croat populations became locked in a frenzy of violence that would kill more than 100,000 innocent civilians.
The tribunal’s judgment on Mladic also brings with it its closure. It’s been on life support for the past few years, extending its existence to bring a last few convictions. It was expected to close several years ago.
It has cost an average of $200 million a year to run. Last year, it employed 425 staff from 69 different nations. In its 24-year life, it has convicted 83 people and was the first war crimes tribunal to indict a sitting head of state: Serbian President Slobodan Milosivec.
For the most part, it has achieved what it set out to do and bring war criminals, their acolytes and their sponsors to justice. But it hasn’t been fast.
Mladic’s political partner in crime, Radovan Karadzic, was found guilty last year of genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of laws or customs of war. He was sentenced to 40 years in jail.
It had taken eight years to convict him – and even longer to find him. Like Mladic, Karadzic had been hiding in plain sight in Serbia.
Karadzic was picked up in July 2008 – his cover as a bearded spiritual healer blown. Mladic lasted even longer, hiding out in a cousin’s house in a village near Belgrade until he was caught in May 2011.
Most people in the village knew precisely who he was. Questions remain about why both of them weren’t turned in sooner.
In Bosnia, a generation has grown up since the war, waiting and watching for the tribunal to deliver justice. Serbs tend to believe it is biased against them; Croats the same, though to a lesser degree. Only a majority of Bosnians feel its work has been some ways beneficial.
Yet despite these differing views, the tribunal has produced a verifiable and thorough accounting of the war and who was responsible. For generations to come, an indisputable truth will be available to everyone – whether they chose to believe it or not.
It is perhaps fitting that the man with the most Bosnian blood directly on his hands was saved until last. The tribunal was never designed this way, but its legacy will be that a war criminal will ultimately pay for his crimes.
Mladic, a former Yugoslav army commander and virulent Serb nationalist, was never repentant in court. He even refused to enter a plea.
I watched him as he arrived at the courthouse. By then, some of the war’s lesser figures had already been tried, sentenced, served their time and been released.
Behind the glass courtroom wall, Mladic glowered at the aging wives of his victims.
He had already robbed them of everything they cherished: homes, husbands, sons and, for some, almost their sanity. Yet with the world watching, he tried to snatch their remaining dignity, turning to stare at them and malevolently drawing a line across his throat with his finger.
That’s what he thought of them, the court of international justice and his final criminal comeuppance.
The judges remained impassive, disconnected from the festering emotions in the public gallery.
But the ponderous process of meting out international law and hammering home the message that war crimes don’t pay has done little to choke off the nationalism at its root.
Across Europe, the same insidious evil that triggered the Bosnian genocides is on the rise.
Those on trial at The Hague are precursors of some of the continent’s current nationalist leaders – just as they themselves are a throwback to their own grandfathers’ uglier inclinations.
Bosnia re-sounded the sirens of the evils of European nationalism. After the police and ambulances mopped up the fighting and carried off the dead and injured, the ICTY became the fire truck left behind trying to put out the flames.
It’s a flimsy metaphor, but it underlines the outsized role the court plays in adjudicating and parceling out blame and punishment so such a war never breaks out again.
But time has been an enemy of the process, creating a judicial imbalance of sorts, adding a layer of remove for the criminal from the crime. For the victim, it allows the pain to grow and the conspiracy theorists to weave new, ugly narratives.
It explains, perhaps in part, why the ICTY has failed to deliver on reconciliation.
A new generation has grown up as the ICTY’s justice has dragged out. The lessons needed to help curb Europe’s growing populist-nationalist narrative are not emerging fast enough to counter new angers and fears that are spreading.
In an ideal world, Bosnia’s war criminals would have had their evil ideologies outed for the horrors they spawn far more quickly.
They would have been vilified, rather than granted space for others to grow in their nationalist image, create new divisions and sow the seeds for more war crimes. The horrible realities of Srebrenica are being forgotten.
Meanwhile Bashar al-Assad – an even bigger killer in Syria – seems to fear international justice at a war crimes tribunal less than losing power. ISIS’s Baghdadi has made a similar calculation.
With greater resources, the ICTY might have delivered speedier results and dealt a bigger blow against evil. But that would have required bigger international buy-in. It would have put a higher price on bringing the guilty to justice sooner.
And to put it bluntly, we should have moved more swiftly. Does Assad today fear a long trial for his heinous atrocities in Syria? Unlikely. If he has watched the ICTY he will know it’s only as strong as the international resolve behind it.
Just as our near-universal coalition on global warming tells us the dangers of not dealing with the human condition of consumption and destruction, so we need to rally around what it takes to be good people. Not just worthy custodians of the planet, but worthy custodians of each other.
The ICTY is an inkling of what we can achieve, but we really need to wake up and start thinking about what it really takes to stop wars. That means talking up the evils they contain and making clear what may come if those behind them are not confronted.
If we are going to convict war criminals – and we must – the process needs to be as big and bold as possible. The point is for everyone to know and understand.
See something say something do something. The lessons that are fresh around us today are that crimes need to be called out – and everyone needs to know about it. If they are not, where will they end?