The massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 was the most heinous crime of the Bosnian war. That it could take place on a continent which fancied it had consigned to the past the atrocities of the Second World War made it all the more shocking. The failure of hopelessly outnumbered UN peacekeepers to guarantee the safety of so many of the civilians they were deployed to protect placed a portion of the blame on the international community, and forced a rethinking of peace-keeping and protection operations everywhere.
But the central blame for Srebrenica and the many other crimes of the Bosnian war lies with those who engaged in the slaughter and, above all, with those who ordered or orchestrated it. This is what makes the trial of Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army at the time, the epochal event that it is, and why so many – not only in the former Yugoslavia – are pinning their hopes on the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague to deliver justice.
It is true that, even if the court moves at a reasonable pace, justice will have been a shamefully long time in coming. Almost two decades have passed since the Dayton Accords brought an uneasy peace to Bosnia. General Mladic was on the run for the best part of 15 years, sheltered – it must be presumed – by like-minded fellow countrymen. And it is not only the surviving relatives of the dead who will resent the fact that he managed to spend his prime years at liberty, facing justice as an already elderly man. His victims did not have that luxury.
If, as it appears, his belated arrest was triggered ultimately by the European Union's stipulation that Serbia could not become a member while General Mladic and the Bosnian Serbs' political leader, Radovan Karadzic, were at large, that says something about the continued appeal of the EU to those outside, but something, too, about the residual support that the Bosnian Serb cause still enjoyed. The resolution of this conflict remains far from complete.
Which is another reason why the trial of General Mladic takes on such significance. The death of the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, in custody before his trial was over, left justice grievously undone. The trial of Mr Karadzic, now in its third year, may eventually produce a verdict, but has suffered many adjournments and delays. On the face of it, the case against General Mladic – pared down to 11 charges, including war crimes and genocide – would appear to be by some way the strongest. It was he, the prosecutor claimed yesterday, who controlled the shelling of Sarajevo; he who orchestrated the killings at Srebrenica; he who oversaw the ethnic cleansing that drove hundreds of thousands from their homes.
Like Mr Karadzic, General Mladic is pleading not guilty. He is also showing open contempt for the court. His defence is expected to mount numerous challenges, and he is not a well man. So far, the tribunal has not covered itself in glory. These two cases constitute a crucial test, not just for the ability of an international court to hold war criminals to account, but for reconciliation in this part of former Yugoslavia. Until all the evidence has been aired and the judgment pronounced, there is no prospect of this conflict being considered closed.