In a historic verdict, Radovan Karadžić has been sentenced to 40 years in prison for 10 out of the 11 charges put against him, including, crucially, genocide in Srebrenica. For many, this will never be enough. It never can be. The verdict already confirmed what they knew to be true, and there is a certain frustration in waiting 21 years for justice. 21 years is a long time, and it is also not long enough. Bullet holes still line buildings. Mass graves continue to be found. Women raise the children they bore of rape. Scars are not so easily healed, but such sentences are vital in providing recognition of the crimes committed as well as a strong message to future generations: never again. If only this message weren’t so familiar.
The story of Karadžić’s capture is in many ways farcical. It involves a 13 year long chase, the CIA and SAS, a collection of poems and a Serb-war-criminal-cum-spiritual-healer-with-his-own-website hiding in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. The trial, in contrast, was grave but significant, although perhaps its length is a farce of its own. He is, as the Bosnian Serb leader, the most senior figure to be sentenced in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and his trial is the one of the most important since Nuremberg. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević died awaiting judgement, whilst Karadžić’s military chief Ratko Mladić and Serb nationalist leader Vojislav Šešelj still await a verdict. These trials bear significance for us all, whether in areas of ethnic conflict or simply as citizens of Europe. We ask ourselves: What do we want Europe to look like? What must be done to those who disobey its laws? How can we apply these lessons to the Europe of today?
The answer to the final question lies in addressing the rising nationalism and anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe. This can be seen in the political rise of Front National in France, Golden Dawn in Greece and, here, UKIP. That’s just the official end of the nationalist spectrum – less officially we see increasing neo-Nazi activity across Europe. The rise of such movements has much to do with growing immigration and now, particularly, the so-called European migrant crisis. Of course, it is never so simple. As in the 1930s, economic concerns and the need to point the finger at someone have played a big part. A different angle can be taken with Yugoslavia; as with Nasser’s death in 1970, after which there was a rise in state nationalism in the Arab world, so after Tito’s death in 1980 there was a rise in ethnic nationalism in Yugoslavia. Whatever the triggers or causes, the escalation of nationalism has historically been dangerous. The sentencing of Karadžić sends a warning about the extremes of this. It is not as far-fetched as we would like to imagine that genocide happened in our very own continent as recently as the ‘90s. We’re ‘90s kids after all, aren’t we? What does this mean for the children of Srebrenica?
In the context of the specifically anti-Islamic sentiment, or Islamophobia, on the rise, there is another message to be drawn from Karadžić’s sentence. It is a message primarily for Bosniaks – that Muslim identity does not bear an impact on justice being served, that their pain is being heard and believed, that their deaths are meaningful. This message must extend to other Muslims, and we must not forget this especially with the influx of mainly Muslim migrants and refugees into Europe.
The fight, as always, is not yet over. Šešelj is currently roaming around Belgrade bathing in his heroic status in the eyes of Serb nationalists and building support – protesting, rallying, endorsing Trump. A verdict is to be reached about him in a week’s time. Hopefully it will also bring with it, as much as possible, justice, healing and a warning to Europe. In light of these trials, we must ask: how can we say ‘never again’ and mean it this time?