A long-awaited arrest

Gen. Ratko Mladic, the world’s most wanted war crimes suspect, was arrested last week in Serbia. His detention, while delayed, is a victory for justice nonetheless. It is a powerful reminder to those who would contemplate similar crimes that they will know no rest; they will have to live their lives in fear of being hunted down and held accountable for their acts — as they should.

Gen. Mladic led Bosnian Serb military forces during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. His moment of greatest infamy came during the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, a former host of the Olympics and a city that had been celebrated for its cultural diversity.

Looking down from the hills from which his forces surrounded the city, he told his troops simply to “burn it.”

That savagery was only exceeded by the genocide at Srebrenica, a city that was ostensibly protected by United Nations peacekeepers. Determined to show that he answered to no higher authority, Gen. Mladic in July 1995 ordered and oversaw the culling of the city’s population, smiling benignly, even offering candy, as women and children were separated from the men.

Then out of view of onlookers, his forces massacred 8,000 men and boys, murdering them in cold blood and burying the bodies in mass graves. It was the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II.

Ironically, his savagery likely hastened the end of the Yugoslav war, the defeat of Bosnian Serb dreams and the dismemberment of that state. His humiliation of the U.N. forces forced the West to punish the Serbs and defend the integrity of the world body. It also alerted Western diplomats to the need to act quickly when facing Serb nationalism in the future.

Gen. Mladic was indicted by the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia and charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, along with other authors of that dreadful conflict: Serb President Slobodan Milosevic and Mr. Radovan Karadzic, the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs.

While Mr. Milosevic remained in power, those men, and other accused, flouted the court, living openly without fear of arrest. That changed in 2000, when Mr. Milosevic was turned out of office.

Gen. Mladic then went into hiding, although he continued to draw a military pension and videos of him periodically popped up on the Internet. A hero to Serb nationalists, he enjoyed protection from much of the public, security services and even criminal groups.

Even after Mr. Milosevic was forced from office, the government in Belgrade was reluctant to arrest war crimes suspects. In 2003, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was murdered — reputedly by organized crime elements — but the message was received that hot pursuit of the war crimes suspects was a dangerous idea. Officially, Gen. Mladic could not be found by the Serbian authorities.

Eventually, however, Serbian aspirations to join Europe overwhelmed the nationalists’ desire to protect their heroes.

The European Union — and particularly the Netherlands, which had sent the peacekeepers that Gen. Mladic humiliated — conditioned membership on full cooperation and compliance with the international tribunal.

The EU showed its seriousness in May 2006 by suspending preliminary negotiations with Serbia on the Stabilization and Association Agreement, one of the key preliminary steps toward membership. In national elections in 2008, a more pro-European party, the Democratic Party, formed a coalition government.

Shortly after that Cabinet took office, Mr. Karadzic was arrested. Serbia applied to join the EU the next year.

The European Commission is scheduled to decide in October whether to give Serbia candidate status, which is a prelude to full accession talks. Reportedly, the United Nations was going to condemn Serbia in a forthcoming report for not doing more to capture Gen. Mladic. His arrest changes the evaluation considerably, although the Commission may hold out if the last war crimes suspect, Mr. Gorad Hadzic, is not arrested by then.

Remarkably, Gen. Mladic and other men who are charged with such crimes, remain popular. Nationalist currents run deep, and not just among the Serbs. Two Croatian generals were recently convicted of war crimes by the international tribunal, decisions that generated protests in that country.

Yet the Serbs believe that they have been singled out for especially harsh treatment while the crimes committed against them go unpunished.

The international tribunal has done a good job of pursuing justice for all the victims of the bloody Yugoslav conflicts. Indeed looking back after a decade, the savagery of those wars is still numbing. The speed and determination with which individuals from all sides were prepared to commit atrocities against people who had been their neighbors and friends just before says something deeply disturbing about our humanity.

It is alarming that so-called civilized societies can descend to this level of violence and anarchy so quickly. It sometimes seems that the only hope we have for maintaining even a thin veneer of civilization is the promise of some form of justice, no matter how long it takes. Gen. Mladic’s arrest is a sign that that promise is being kept.