This month has been a bad one for the cause of human rights in Europe, as Serbia was allowed to begin its six-month presidency of the Council of Europe, the Continent’s oldest political body.

With Serbia at the helm, the Council, which aims to promote human rights and the rule of law, is now overseen by a state that thumbs its nose at the Genocide Convention and harbors an indicted war-crimes suspect, former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic.

Moreover, the European Commission has indicated that it is ready to resume talks aimed at bringing Serbia closer to the European Union as soon as a reform-oriented government is formed in Belgrade.

Earlier this year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found Serbia guilty of failing to prevent the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica. The Court also declared that Serbia will remain in violation of the Genocide Convention until it transfers Mladic — who is believed responsible for some of the worst crimes in Europe since World War II — to the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

But the EU seems ready to ignore Serbia’s disdain for international law. The EU is understandably eager to support a pro-European government in Serbia, for this might pave the way for Serbia to swallow the prospect of Kosovo’s independence. That explains why some EU member states are keen to resume the negotiations on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, which were suspended a year ago due to Serbia’s failure to cooperate fully with the ICTY.

The proposed U-turn by the EU means that Mladic’s arrest and transfer to The Hague is no longer a condition for restarting talks.

Of course, Europe needs to sweeten the Kosovo deal for Serbia. But an immediate resumption of negotiations amounts to an approach that is all carrot and no stick, damaging the EU’s own credibility. Indeed, the West has already tried this approach before, with paltry results. In December 2006, NATO allowed Serbia to join its Partnership for Peace, even though there were still war criminals at large in the country.

This softer approach will prove counterproductive, as it will not strengthen democratic forces in Serbia. Just last week, caretaker Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, once hailed by Europe as a great democrat, showed his true colors. He went so far as to support the election of an extreme nationalist, Tomislav Nikolic, who was an old ally of Milosevic’s, as the speaker of the Serbian Parliament. The head of Nikolic’s party, Vojislav Seselj, is in the dock in The Hague facing trial for war crimes.

Although Nikolic soon resigned after a new Serbian government was formed, the Cabinet’s composition suggests that the EU might be foolish to expect greater cooperation with the ICTY. By effectively abandoning conditionality, the EU will be rewarding the most intransigent hardliners in Serbia — the very people who have opposed the arrest of Mladic for years. With the ICTY’s closure just one year away, there is a risk that Mladic will never be held accountable.

The effect that the resumption of talks might have on the system of international law is no less chilling. Serbia’s leadership of the Council of Europe is a done deal. But the EU must insist on Serbia’s compliance with the ICTY, the ICJ decision and its own Copenhagen political criteria. Mladic must be arrested before talks start, not after.

As a signal of their seriousness, European governments should think twice before they accept Serbia’s invitation to attend the Council of Europe’s festive 1,000th meeting in June. A minute of silence for the victims of unarrested war criminals might be a more appropriate way to pay tribute to the Council’s core values of human rights and justice than attending the party now being planned in Belgrade.