The first thing that hits you at a mass grave is not the sight of decomposing bodies, but the smell. It is sweet and nauseating, and it sticks to your body, long after you leave, as if the dead want to be freed from their fate.

Once you experience such an atrocity, you never really leave the scene of the crime, no matter where you go in life. Indeed, that was my first thought when I learned of Radovan Karadzic’s recent conviction in The Hague for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

 Ex-Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic sits in the court of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague
Ex-Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in The Hague
Image: REUTERS/Robin van Lonkhuijsen

The Bosnian-Serb war-time leader was charged with 11 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the UN war crimes tribunal. In one of the most important cases since Nuremburg, Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in prison for his deeds, including his part in Europe’s bloodiest crime since the Holocaust.

It has been over a decade since I first visited the mass graves of Bosnia, as the youngest and most junior prosecution attorney at the UN war crimes tribunal. My first case was the tribunal’s most deadly: the mass slaughter of approximately 8,000 Muslim men and boys after the fall of the UN “safe area” of Srebrenica – a crime of genocide – and a crime that found some very small sense of justice with Karadzic’s recent conviction.

 A woman cries near the coffins of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovinain Memorial center Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina
A woman cries by the coffins of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

We are a long way from what may have been the “pinnacle” of international justice. There was a short few-year span when the world saw the first trial of a head of state Slobodan Milosevic, which was followed in quick succession by the first trials of heads of state from Africa and the Middle East (Charles Taylor and Saddam Hussein, respectively), and the formation of the first International Criminal Court. The world was generally at peace, and it seemed, had the bandwidth to embrace the slow and tedious pace of international justice.

Today, the world is caught up with unrest in the Middle East and a refugee and humanitarian crisis that impacts multiple continents. News from Europe tends to highlight these issues, and the continued terrorist threat. Indeed, there seems to be little policy and media bandwidth for the cause of international criminal justice.

 Smoke rises from the modern city as seen from the historic city of Palmyra, in Homs Governorate, Syria
Devastation in the historic city of Palmyra, Syria
Image: REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

The reaction to Karadzic’s case reflects this fact. Bosnia was once front-page news and the trials of war criminals, like Milosevic, drew international attention. In a 24-hour news cycle that seems more interested in sensationalizing the American election cycle, Karadzic’s historic conviction barely made press. This is especially the case in the United States – a country that led the Dayton Peace Accords to end a conflict, and which continued as the largest contributor to, not just the tribunal’s budget, but the all-important effort to risk its own special forces, to help arrest war criminals indicted by the UN.

The question remains today, can we expect such national and international efforts to risk blood and treasure for the cause of justice to continue?

Much has been made about the new Sustainable Development Goals, launched with great fanfare at the UN General Assembly six months ago. Among its lauded aims is Goal 16: “peace, justice and strong institutions."

Such an important goal requires a new generation of inspired servant-leaders, like those toiling away in The Hague, people who shy away from the spotlight – and who are happy for institutions to take the occasional credit for their good work. It also takes national governments to commit blood and treasure to the cause, in a sustained manner.

The crisis in Syria may dampen our optimism, but the Karadzic judgement is a reminder that the international community can work collectively to end conflict, and while slow and imperfect, justice does come. As it is said, "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." So here’s to the good men and women in The Hague, who serve as an example for us all, in their slow and sustained fight against evil.