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FT: Rough justice is a fitting end for Milosevic

Author: Richard C. Holbrooke
March 14, 2006


In the three days since Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav strongman, died in his cell in the fifth year of his trial as a war criminal, the news business, especially the cable news channels, has settled on a simple storyline. This is in keeping with modern journalism's market-driven obsession to turn every big news event into a narrative. Instead of just giving the reader the facts and their context, stories now need a plot, with an implicit point of view, whether justified or not. In this case, the story­line on Milosevic's death is simple—and simple-minded: Milosevic evaded (or denied, or even "cheated") justice. And just how did he do this? The journalistic answer, of course, is: by dying.

What utter nonsense. After all, the man died in his cell, knowing he would never see freedom again—a fitting end for someone who started four wars (all of which he lost), causing 300,000 deaths, leaving more than 2m people homeless and wrecking the Balkans.

The real storyline, if you need one, is this: a verdict was denied but justice was not. Consider the facts: Milosevic was the first head of state in history to face an international court for war crimes, something that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and countless others avoided. Milosevic spent the last five years of his life in jail, forced to listen to thousands of hours of testimony about his actions and their consequences. The trial was broadcast live, and the testimony and the devastating videotape of the massacre in Srebrenica that emerged during the trial destroyed his reputation and helped establish the truth among all but a few pathetic bitter-enders in Serbia.

The result was a qualified success for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. It is certainly true that the trial itself was clumsy and proceeded too slowly, and for that the tribunal is accountable. (Does a prisoner, whose poor health was well-known, have to die before anyone notices that the court is following an inexcusably leisurely schedule?) But everyone knew that, one way or another, Milosevic would never see freedom. The sentence was inevitably going to be consecutive life sentences. (There is no death penalty in the war crimes tribunal.) The importance of the event—putting a head of state in the dock for his war policies and giving him a chance to defend himself before the world—transcends everything else. It had practical consequences as well; if Milosevic had not been sent to the tribunal, he would have resumed his political career in Yugoslavia, with seriously destabilising effects on the entire Balkans.

If journalists are looking for the real story about justice denied in the Balkans, they should look at three other men: Zoran Djindjic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. The first was the Serbian prime minister after Milosevic was overthrown. He made the courageous decision to send the ousted dictator to the war crimes tribunal in 2001. For this, Djindjic paid with his life, assassinated exactly three years ago by some of Milosevic's criminal allies. (On Sunday in Belgrade, far more people turned out for a candlelight vigil for Djindjic than rallied for Milosevic, although the international news media, looking for the Milosevic peg to their coverage, barely mentioned this fact.)

As for justice denied, there is no better example than the fact that 10 years after the Dayton agreement ended the war in Bosnia, Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs who conducted most of the ethnic cleansing, and Mladic, the general behind the mass murders in Srebrenica and elsewhere, are still at large. This is the result of Nato's failure to apprehend the two men, and because Serbs in both Serbia and Bosnia have been allowed to continue sheltering and supporting these two men. That, truly, is "justice denied", but its consequences go further. As long as Karadzic and Mladic are free, they inspire resistance and promote efforts to obstruct the rebuilding of the Balkans. Carla del Ponte, the tribunal's chief prosecutor,was certainly right, therefore, to use Milosevic's death to press everyone from Belgrade to Brussels to redouble efforts to capture these two men. The fact that the men who killed Djindjic were part of the conspiracy that protects Karadzic and Mladic undoubtedly has a chilling effect on Belgrade's current leadership when they consider whether or not to co-operate with Ms del Ponte.

It is ironic that Milosevic died just as the long-delayed negotiations on the final status of Kosovo began under the leadership of Martti Ahtissari, former Finnish president (with Frank Wisner, one of America's most skilled professional diplomats, representing Washington). For it was by exploiting the Kosovo issue that Milosevic rose to power in 1989, using the most extreme forms of nationalism to rouse the Serbian people. Now, even as his family and supporters argue over where he should be buried, he will no longer cast a living shadow over such issues. Milosevic will be spared watching the inevitable result of those negotiations—independence for Kosovo.

As for Bosnia, in which he had lost interest, the problem has been not Milosevic—not for a long time—but Karadzic and his very public henchmen, who continue to try to block every move towards greater integration of the Serb, Croat and Bosnian Muslim communities, as called for in the Dayton agreement.

Even here, however, there has been some progress. The long-overdue military integration of Bosnia's three ethnically based armies—once considered unimaginable—has begun and other important reforms are under way. For this and many other reasons, I disagree with the current European-American position that makes Sarajevo's movement toward a closer association with the European Union dependent on the Bosnian government turning Karadzic over to the war crimes tribunal. Sarajevo should not be held responsible for something that is, in fact, being done by its enemies in the Serb parts of Bosnia.

After he came to power with his skilful and virulent speeches on Kosovo, Milosevic started wars with Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and, finally, Kosovo. He lost them all, before losing power himself in the autumn of 2000. Yet he was not, in my mind, a real nationalist. His preoccupation was power—acquiring it and retaining it. He was a shrewd opportunist whose string ran out, but not before his policies wrecked the Balkans. In death, he joins his old adversaries, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Ibrahim Rugova of Kosovo, who died only a month ago. Only Karadzic and Mladic remain of the big figures of a dreadful, bloody decade. That Milosevic ended his days alone in a cell in The Hague, after spending five years listening to evidence against him, strikes me as a reasonable and acceptable form of rough justice.

The writer, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, was the chief architect of the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war in Bosnia in 1995.

This article originally appeared in the Financial Times.

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