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Bernard-Henri Lévy

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What the Trial of Ratko Mladic Will Mean

Posted: 06/08/11 11:17 AM ET

Do we realize to what extent the arrest, ten days ago, of ex-General Ratko Mladic, on the run for over fifteen years in rather strange circumstances, is important?

This is the man who gave the order, in July 1995, to massacre 8,000 men and youths whose very existence in the Muslim enclave of Srebenica was a denial and a living challenge to what was then known in Serbia as ethnic purification.

Along with his political chief, Radovan Karadzic, and their common sponsor, Slobodan Milosevic, he was directly or indirectly responsible for the 100,000 dead of this war of Bosnia, and for hundreds of thousands wounded, amputated and, naturally, displaced persons added to the dead -- in short, for this human, moral, and spiritual disaster at the heart of Europe.

His is the voice one hears (and the voice-over I chose in Bosna ! to accompany the images of the burning of the grand library of Sarajevo), bellowing at his commanders, by radio, on May 29, 1992, just a few weeks after the siege of the city began: "Fire on the Bosnian Assembly, those are my orders!" (to Colonel Kovacevic); "Kill everyone you can!" (to Colonel Vukasinovic); and "Fire harder, still harder, using only the 155 calibres and the missiles!" (to Colonel Stojanovic).

And then, he is the illustration of the monstrous denial of reality, not to say the complacence and even the complicity that were such that Serbia continued to pay his pension as a retired general until the beginning of the 2000s -- and that allowed an international community (with the United States and Europe in the lead) fairly well aware of where he was hiding out those fifteen years to say nothing, do nothing, and for reasons one hopes the trial will clarify, ensure him outrageous impunity until today.

Today, the page has been turned.

Like those responsible for organizing the Rwandan genocide, the majority of whom have been brought to justice, Mladic, along with Karadzic, will finally have to answer for his crimes.

And the consequences of the trial that will begin will be more or less lasting -- but all of them will be decisive.

A feeling of relief, first of all, for those close to the victims and for those rare survivors of the worst mass murder committed on European soil since the end of the Second World War. Without justice, there can be no grieving, hence no consolation; the wound remains indefinitely open, the pain intense, that of the survivor now become the secret grave of the dead, their ghost, their voice constrained to remain silent.

It is a blessing for Serbia, living with this blank space in its memory or, much the same thing, this overload of dead on its conscience, ghostly as well. A Serbia no less spectral than Bosnia though for strictly opposite reasons, one that, by turning Mladic in, is delivered of that part of itself born as the unspoken, a curse, an evil inner voice that drove it mad. Since the fall of Milosevic, this is the last symptom of a past that is ever-present and, much more than its economic and financial situation, the greatest obstacle to its entry into the Eurozone and into Europe. And now? Now Bosnia must become part of this Europe of which it was, and remains, one of the brightest symbols. And after Bosnia, Serbia.

And then, this arrest is very bad news, finally, for all war criminals, crazy tyrants, and psychopaths, no longer of the region, but of the world. For, once again, the message is clear. International justice exists. In record time, it has acquired legitimacy and authority. If your name is al-Assad, Gaddafi, or Ratko Mladic, then, you can escape it for a few months, a few years, even fifteen years. But the time ultimately comes when the noose tightens, the phantoms catch up with you, and the moment of truth is here -- a great and powerful lesson!

Will Mladic be condemned for war crimes? Crimes against humanity? Or even, like his second, Radislav Krstic, for the crime of genocide? I am neither the investigator nor the prosecutor. But personally, I'd be inclined to say that crimes against humanity is the most adequate description of that which historians, for their part, have already established. And I believe that genocide, on the other hand, is a word to be handled with great prudence. But justice, and justice alone, will decide. And, to its honor, it will take all the time required to do so. It will multiply procedures, cross-examine information and witnesses, and establish the facts. Regardless of our impatience, it will allow the defense to express itself. And on the way, it will attempt to cast light on the other side of this story -- what made it possible for the butcher of Srebrenica to delay the hour of confrontation with his victims for such a long time.

But once more, and for the moment, let us let the judges speak.

Let us prove that we can respond to barbarity with the truth and with the scrupulous application of the law.

The Mladic trial should be the triumph, fifteen years later, of the truth and the law.