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Milosevic Haunts Justice System

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
updated: March 14, 2006

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Slobodan Milosevic's death in a war crimes tribunal cell deprives many in the former Yugoslavia of seeing justice done to the man charged with orchestrating atrocities in the three major Balkan wars of the 1990s. It also may create more profound concerns among global human rights advocates, who saw the Milosevic trial in the Hague as an important experiment for the new permanent International Criminal Court. The nature of his death has already spawned controversy. A Dutch toxicologist says there are indications Milosevic died as a result of trying to manipulate his health (NYT) so he could seek treatment in Moscow.

Milosevic was the first former head of state to come before an international tribunal, his trial the crowning achievement of the Yugoslav war crimes court. His passing just weeks before the end of his trial is already seen by some as diminishing the legacy of what was called the most important court established in Europe (BBC) since the end of the Second World War. The UN Security Council established tribunals in the 1990s to prosecute perpetrators of genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Human Rights Watch and other groups saw in them the pillars of a "lasting structure of global criminal justice." But the United States, which has lent enormous resources to the two Security Council-supported tribunals, remains vehemently opposed to the ICC, seeing it as tool for politically motivated prosecutions of U.S. service members. Meanwhile, another brutal leader who some think should have been tried by an international court — Saddam Hussein — instead faces charges in a domestic court whose legitimacy has been questioned by many who back the ICC.

Some U.S. legal skeptics of international tribunals say they hardly pose a deterrent to hardened war criminals. They point to Milosevic's campaign against Kosovo's Muslims in 1998-1999 even after the Hague tribunal had been in operation and to the ethnic cleansing of pro-government forces against civilians in Sudan's Darfur region.

These sentiments and donor fatigue have led the UN Security Council to mandate a "completion strategy" (PDF) in which the Hague tribunal must end all trials by the end of 2008 and all appeals by 2010. Council members insist they will support the tribunal in the event that suspected Bosnian war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are apprehended, but that remains uncertain. Ten years after the Dayton Accords ended the bloodiest of the Yugoslav civil wars, the inability to try Karadzic and Mladic haunts Bosnia amid its painstaking efforts at consolidating a state.

In the case of Milosevic, much attention was paid to his courtroom theatrics, in berating jurists, and dismissing what he called NATO's victor's justice. But as Gary Bass notes in Foreign Affairs, the trial should be recognized for some great achievements—establishing Milosevic's role in the former Yugoslav wars and removing him from the Serbian political scene. Former U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, architect of the Dayton Accords, says that while a verdict may have been denied, Milosevic was still rendered a form of "rough justice" (FT) by spending his last five years in jail hearing evidence of his crimes. As Belgrade contemplates losing Kosovo and Montenegro within the space of a year, the departure of Milosevic from the scene is not likely to be mourned too long.

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