THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Ratko Mladic was at the height of his military power when the United Nations set up the Hague tribunal 17 years ago in the middle of Europe's bloodiest war since 1945, over the dismembered territory of Yugoslavia.
The Bosnian Serb Army general, commanding forces which had the heavy weaponry of Yugoslavia's arsenals, scoffed at the theoretical risk of prosecution.
His army was on the way to seizing control of 70 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina. His siege of Sarajevo went on, and in July 1995 his men slaughtered the 8,000 Muslim males they had captured at Srebrenica.
But theory will become reality when Mladic faces judges who could sentence him to life imprisonment, in a 21st century display of justice turning impunity into accountability.
Case by case, capture by capture, the tribunal has zeroed in on the men at the top of their list of suspects. And Serbs, seeing the nation's future held hostage by a few, put pride to one side, until there was no hiding place.
In March 2006, death cheated the Hague tribunal of the judgment of its central defendant, when Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb nationalist leader accused of fomenting genocide, died suddenly in his cell, while on trial.
Milosevic -- highly intelligent and articulate, an interlocutor for many years at the highest levels -- was at the helm for all the Yugoslav conflicts, attacking Slovenia then Croatia in 1991, moving on to Bosnia in 1992, and finally to a war with NATO over Kosovo in 1999.
But Mladic, more than any other figure, epitomized the ruthlessness of Serb forces in the field. Now he takes the place of prime suspect.
Mladic's political alter-ego, the one-time Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, was captured in 2008 and is on trial, arguing that Christian Serbs were only defending the West against the rise of Islamist militancy in Muslim Bosnia.
Mladic is much closer to the trigger. His trial is not likely to focus on ideology or conspiracy or even on moral equivalence, but on military fact. He was in command.
Nationalist Serbs who despise the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia are sure it is part of a Western plot to emasculate Serbia.
Thousands protested the extradition of Mladic this week, many genuinely indignant, while a few were part of that small number who like to smash windows and punch police.
In 2003 it was a far darker scene. A sniper killed the young reformist premier Zoran Djindjic, who had sent Milosevic to The Hague, as extremists tried to mount a putsch.
Without Mladic in the dock, the tribunal would have wound up, probably in 2012 or 2013, leaving open questions. It would have been a partial success, always susceptible to doubts that would second-guess the whole idea behind its establishment.
When NATO forces intervened in Bosnia, haltingly and then decisively, it marked the start of a new era in which major powers acting via the United Nations espoused the concept of "humanitarian intervention," later encapsulated in the idea of a "responsibility to protect" unarmed civilians at risk of death.
This doctrine did not apply in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq or the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban. But it is at the heart of the NATO-led, U.N.-backed conflict in Libya.
The ICTY tribunal is empowered to prosecute breaches of the Geneva Conventions, violations of laws or customs of war, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Those it has prosecuted run from common soldiers to Milosevic, the first head of state to face an international war crimes indictment.
Among some 160 cases, it has prosecuted Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians who fought the Serbs. But about two thirds of the defendants have been members of the Serb and Bosnian Serb army, police and political figures.
Hardline Serb nationalists say that fact is proof of bias. The tribunal says it simply reflects which side was most responsible for war crimes, as the federation of six republics held together by the late Tito broke apart, leaving ethnic islands in territory suddenly deemed hostile or desirable.
The tribunal has been criticized for the length of its trials and for defeating its own goal of truth and reconciliation by tearing open the wounds of ethnic wars that killed 130,000 people.
Its response is that truth must come first.
Editing by Angus MacSwan and Elizabeth Piper