06/13/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Long Arm of Justice

The long arm of justice caught up with Radovan Karadzic yesterday, as his former victims began to testify against him at a genocide trial at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Almost fifteen years after the Srebrenica genocide, when Bosnian Serb forces rounded up over 7,500 Muslim men and boys and slaughtered them in cold blood, thousands with their eyes blindfolded and their hands tied behind their backs, the former president of the Serb-controlled Bosnia, the man who presided over the worst massacre in Europe since the Holocaust, now finds himself in the very same dock that held former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. And as former president Karadzic sits between two UN prison guards in an international tribunal, one must wonder, is the end of impunity finally coming to a close?

In 2002, I sat across from Slobodan Milosevic in the first war crimes trial of a head of state, ever. It was a historic trial -- one supported by the United Nations and the international community -- and one that only a few years earlier, I never thought would happen.

You see, up until April 2001, when the Butcher of the Balkans was arrested at his Belgrade villa, it was almost presumed that if you were a terrible dictator, or a head of state bent on mass slaughter and destruction, you would never see the inside of a courtroom. Lesser functionaries, yes -- they might go to trial -- but the top officials, they were virtually untouchable. As presidents, they would likely die while in office, or escape to a well-appointed villa to live their lives in comfortable exile. But now, the very presumptions that have guided human history, in the short time I've been a lawyer, have changed... And we've almost taken it for granted.

After the arrest and trial of Milosevic, came the arrest and trial of former president Saddam Hussein -- the first war crimes trial of a Middle East leader in history -- and the arrest of former president Charles Taylor of Liberia - and who now sits in the dock in The Hague.

It seems that with every year, the dominos of impunity keep falling -- first Europe, then the Middle East, then Africa. And they continue to fall:

Chad's exiled former president, Hissène Habré, is to stand trial at a special court in Senegal, while in Asia, another domino is falling.

Khieu Samphan, the former president of the Khmer Rouge, is facing a UN-sponsored court in Cambodia for his part in "The Killing Fields" -- and the slaughter of his own people nearly 30 years ago.

Most recently, the International Criminal Court in The Hague has dropped another domino with its indictment of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. The question now is not if another president will ever be charged, but rather -- when, and who is next?

This is a fundamental change in the presumption. Unlike those of us that studied law and justice in the 20th Century -- the next generation of prosecutors and foreign policy professionals -- those graduating from universities and law schools in the 21st Century -- will only know a world where such terrible dictators actually do stand trial. Such a presumption will embolden the next generation of leaders to act -- and perhaps with time -- bring a true end to impunity.

Sixty years after the world's experiment at Nuremberg -- and after millions of lives shattered by war crimes, destruction, and perverted leadership, we should be cautiously optimistic that there is some hope for humanity -- but only if we keep pressing the cause of justice. Let us hope we press on -- and let us hope that future dictators take notice.

Mark Vlasic, a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, and a partner at Ward & Ward PLLC, served on the Slobodan Milosevic and Srebrenica genocide prosecution trial teams at the UN war crimes tribunal, helped train the judges that tried Saddam Hussein, and worked with the President's Special Envoy to Sudan while serving as a White House Fellow and special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.