Marko Prelec: This trial won't make anything better – but it must go ahead

Radovan Karadzic’s long and strange career – from Sarajevo psychiatrist to nationalist leader to breakaway president, honoured guest at international peace talks from Geneva to New York to the HMS Invincible, anchored in the Adriatic sea; from the International Criminal Tribunal’s first high-profile indictee, already in the summer of 1995, to fugitive from justice, to bushy-bearded new-age healer in the Belgrade suburbs – takes its last turn today as the ICTY prosecutor calls his first witnesses against him. This day has been long in coming.

There is no doubt Mr Karadzic bears – together with the still-missing general Ratko Mladic – heaviest responsibility for the murder of tens of thousands, and the terrorising and expulsion of over a million Bosniak and Croat civilians in Bosnia’s war.

But the trial won’t tell us much we don’t already know, and it will make little difference in the still-tense western Balkans. In many previous trials the ICTY has exhaustively documented Bosnian Serb crimes – and Mr Karadzic's role in them. Almost all of the prosecution’s early witnesses have testified before, some many times. The prosecutor has been compiling evidence against Mr Karadzic for fifteen years; when I started working at the Tribunal in the spring of 1999 I found detailed studies of the Bosnian Serb leadership and its criminal policies and works, already years old. Later trials added a mountain of corroboration and detail. Much of this is available on the Tribunal’s website to anyone interested and patient enough to read it. Mr Karadzic’s story is already all there in public record.

So what is the value of what promises to be a long and expensive trial? Hague justice doesn’t come cheap –the Tribunal costs about one hundred million Euros each year. Some believe Mr Karadzic’s trial will bring catharsis and healing to the Balkans and help establish a common historical narrative.

That battle was lost long ago. The Tribunal may not appreciate how low its stock has fallen in the Balkans. Last summer, after the Karadzic judges suggested shortening the trial – down to a brief 30 months – by leaving out repetitive evidence, one of Bosnia’s most cosmopolitan weeklies, BH Dani, responded with a cover consisting of a black field and the word “Hague” with a swastika replacing the H, and angry articles condemning the international community’s allegedly pro-Serb bias. There’s little evidence the Tribunal has shifted Balkan opinions much. Each community overwhelmingly favours its own, and denial remains widespread.

There’s no meaningful punishment for a man who ordered the murder of eight thousand men and boys in Srebrenica – among many other crimes. What Mr Karadzic did is far beyond the reach of criminal justice. He must be tried not because it will achieve some positive aim, but because there is no other way to establish his guilt fairly. This is necessary, and it’s the Tribunal’s biggest contribution to international peace. Without it Mr Karadzic, and the whole sorry lot of war criminals on all sides, wouldn’t be marginalised and pathetic fugitives or jailbirds, they’d still be in charge of the Balkans. His trial breaks no new ground – it’s a vindication and a summing-up of what the Tribunal has already achieved: letting the Balkans develop in peace.

The author is International Crisis Group's Balkans project director in Prishtina