Heed lessons from the Balkans

Refugees wait in the no-mans land between Serbia and Croatia, outside Sid, Serbia, last September. The migration crisis in Europe is fanning old tensions in the Balkans. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

It has been more than a quarter century since the main bloody conflict in the Balkans between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims and Croats was settled after a decisive U.S. intervention. But ghosts of those long-past wars still haunt the present, and offer some lessons for the future.

Many of the leading figures of the Balkan conflicts are gone. Franco Tudjman, the leader of the Croat independence movement, died in 1999. Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader who first used force to try to preserve Yugoslavia and later sought to carve out a “Greater Serbia” through the forceful displacement of other ethnic groups, died in captivity in The Hague in 2006 while undergoing trial for war crimes.

And another veteran of the conflict, distinguished U.S. international lawyer and State Department adviser Roberts Owen, who crafted the documents that settled the Balkans conflicts as part of the Dayton peace accords, died just last month at the age of 90.

But it was only last month that an international court at last held one of the main actors, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, guilty of ordering the execution of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995 — a massacre that prompted a very reluctant U.S. president, Bill Clinton, to intervene to halt the fighting and convene a peace conference at Dayton, Ohio, in the fall of 1995.

The same U.N. court also found Serbian propagandist Vojislav Seselj innocent, ruling that his inflammatory words fell short of a punishable crime.

But Mr. Seselj had been a prisoner of the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) from 2003 to 2014, when he was freed to undergo cancer treatments. Mr. Karadzic, who eluded capture until 2008, spent nearly 8 years in a Dutch prison before his sentence was announced.

Surely one lesson from the aftermath of the Balkan wars is that the U.N. war crimes process for the former Yugoslavia did not achieve the speedy administration of justice. With the U.N. Security Council far more divided today than it was in the 1990s, the creation of another court to try similar war crimes, such as those clearly committed by the Syrian government headed by Bashar al-Assad, is not in the cards. But if and when nations are again willing to hold those who committed major atrocities responsible for their actions, the shortcomings of the ICTY process must be carefully addressed.

The Balkan wars were brutal and there is no doubt that animosity between the different ethnic groups that struggled for dominance or survival remains high today. But the constitutions and other legal structures wisely devised by Mr. Owen for such countries as the predominantly Muslim new Bosnia and the Republika Srpska, formed from the predominantly Serbian areas of the old Bosnia, survive to this day under peaceful conditions.

The lesson from this for the future is that “civil wars” can be settled, and innocent lives saved, by well-directed international interventions. In the 1990s, the European Union proved to be incapable of halting ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It took the determined intervention of the United States to prevail over Serbian aggression.

Now the United States, under President Barack Obama, has decided not to intervene in the Syrian civil war, leaving that job to Russia under circumstances that have put a major stress on the members of the European Union to deal with massive refugee flows.

And at this troubling point, the painful contrast between President Obama’s failed approach to Syria and President Clinton’s much wiser handling of the Balkans crisis is all too apparent.