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In the Land of Blood and Honey: Bosnia, 20 Years Later

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War and genocide in the former Yugoslavia will be thrust back into the spotlight this month with the release of In the Land of Blood and Honey, a film written and directed by Angelina Jolie. In often harrowing detail, the film depicts a complex, gripping story of love and deception set against a backdrop of mass murder, rape, and ethnic cleansing.

For many Americans the wars in the Balkans are a distant memory. Yet almost 20 years after the start of that conflict peace may be fracturing. Last month, the UN envoy in Kosovo called the situation "extremely volatile" and warned of the need for greater international attention.

The prospect of further violence in the Balkans is a serious matter. Much has changed in the world, however, since war began there in 1992 -- and for the better. Atrocities still happen with alarming consequences, as recent events in Syria and elsewhere have shown. Yet as we head into 2012, it is important to recognize how far the global framework to prevent genocide and protect civilians has advanced.

Much more can and ought to be done. As Ms. Jolie's film illustrates, the world was far too slow to react to the terrible crimes taking place in the Balkans (and elsewhere). But recognizing the successes that have been achieved in the years since will help advance that goal, by making it clear that progress can happen and that protecting civilians and reining in the excesses of war is not a hopeless enterprise.

What has changed over the last 20 years? Two key innovations stand out: one an idea, the other institution. The institution is the International Criminal Court, and its predecessors, the international tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. The idea is the "Responsibility to Protect." Together, they mark critical steps on humanity's long road toward a more just and peaceful world.

In 1992, when war erupted in the Balkans, no international war crimes trials had been held since the aftermath of the Second World War. The Nuremburg trials are rightly heralded as a milestone in the road from impunity to punishment for those who commit terrible acts in war. But their legacy was long left unrealized. Only after the Balkan wars, and later the horrifying genocide in Rwanda, shocked the conscience of the world did the international community respond with new tribunals to try the perpetrators of grave crimes.

Then came the birth of the International Criminal Court in 2002. Unlike the Rwanda and Yugoslav tribunals, the ICC is a standing court with a broad jurisdiction. It is still a fledging institution, however, and major powers like the US lie beyond its reach. But like Nuremburg before it, the ICC is a milestone: the first-ever permanent international criminal court, and consequently the first that can, at least in principle, deter mass atrocities from occurring. To date, it has indicted some two dozen individuals and held several trials.

International criminal courts are primarily reactive: they are designed to try and sentence those who have already committed bad acts. Preventing bad acts from occurring is always better than punishing perpetrators. And that is where the second key innovation comes in: the idea of a "Responsibility to Protect" those who are threatened with mass atrocities.

The Responsibility to Protect is a standard or norm of behavior for governments, not rule of international law. It is, in other words, an idea about what a responsible state in the 21st century must do. But it is not just an ideal; it marks a change in the meaning of sovereignty, one that was endorsed by the member states of the UN in 2005.

The Responsibility to Protect has three components. A state has a responsibility to protect its population from grave crimes; the international community has a responsibility to assist a state in doing so; and, most controversially, if a state manifestly fails to protect its citizens, the international community has a responsibility to intervene. The central notion is that states exist to serve and protect their citizens. If they cannot do so, others will protect their citizens for them -- coercively if necessary.

The NATO-led intervention this year in Libya combined elements of both the ICC and the Responsibility to Protect. In Resolution 1970, the UN Security Council referred the situation in Libya to the ICC, empowering it to investigate crimes committed during the violence there. The Security Council also expressly invoked the Libya's responsibility to protect its citizens. And a few weeks later the Security Council authorized military action to protect civilians, which successfully ousted the Gaddafi regime in October.

Whether Libya is the augur of a new era or a controversial overreach by NATO is hotly debated. But what cannot be denied is that today, unlike two decades ago, there is a system in place to combat mass atrocities that is both multilateral and permanent.

This system will not always be deployed, of course: Syria, brutally cracking down on rebellion within its borders, has not been treated as Libya was. Yet the Assad regime is increasingly isolated, facing sanctions even from the Arab League and censure around the world. The standards of state behavior -- and the expectations of the responsibility of neighbors--are changing.

If war breaks out again in the Balkans in 2012, it will sadden all who strive for a better, more peaceful world. No idea or institution can stop violence when a party is determined to engage in it.

Yet as bleak as this may seem, the world has taken important steps forward from 1992. This is not cause for celebration; there is still much work to be done, as In the Land of Blood and Honey powerfully reminds viewers. But especially now, in an election year in which many political leaders will counsel an American retreat from the world stage, we must preserve and build on these essential elements in the long struggle to protect civilians from brutality.

Kal Raustiala is director of the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA and a professor of law at UCLA Law School