Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was given a life sentence by the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This is good news, but it is horribly ironic that these days the world is producing mass murders and genocidaires much faster than courts can try them—and that we seem to be losing the will and the ability to stop the killing.
The current push for war crimes trials, like the modern human rights movement, really got its mojo from the 1990s—that halcyon decade after the end of the Cold War when we all thought that the liberal utopia was about to arrive. It hasn’t, and even as the wheels of justice continue to turn at their agonizingly slow and deliberative pace over the Bosnian genocides, the U.S. has, slowly and reluctantly, conceded that ISIS is conducting genocidal wars in Syria and Iraq. The president of Turkey is invoking the specter of the fate of the Armenians as an example to terrify the Kurds. Palestinians celebrate teenagers who stab random civilians as heroes and ‘martyrs’, and Burundi sits at the edge of yet another massive outbreak of murder and mayhem.
This doesn’t mean prosecutors shouldn’t take action against monsters like Karadzic, but we would be fools to think that international law is the force that will bring massacre and genocide to an end. International law on the whole is a good thing and should be upheld, but statecraft is much more important than international law, and without wise statecraft, effective strategy and strong will, international law soon fades into a dead letter. That is what seems to be happening right now; even as Karadzic is marched to what we hope will not be a particularly commodious cell, Bashar al-Assad is committing crimes on a scale that Karadzic couldn’t dream of, and the Middle East trembles on the verge of a descent into slaughter that would make everything that happened in the Yugoslav Wars look like a food fight at Hogwarts.
There must be order before there can be law; in our world today, the future of order looks increasingly doubtful.