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Justice After Milosevic

Although Slobodan Milosevic died before he could be sentenced for his crimes, he serves as an example that international law is a powerful force to be reckoned with.
 
 
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Among the few signs of human progress in the 21st century is Gen. Pinochet's prosecution in Chile, the fact that Henry Kissinger has to check with his lawyers as well as his travel agent before flying outside the United States, and that Ariel Sharon had to worry about being arrested if he went to Belgium.

Above all, the fact that Slobodan Milosevic was on trial rather than residing in the presidential residence in Belgrade is a major achievement of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and a major step forward for humanity. Even in his going, Slobodan Milosevic has proven that he has the power to polarize the public. Was he poisoned, or was he dosing himself into ill health to boost his case for a one-way trip to Moscow? One thing is certain: Most of the people who supported his prosecution feel cheated that he did not face a verdict and long imprisonment in The Hague.

The length of his trial, which killed much public interest as well as the accused, has raised questions about the efficacy of the Tribunal. Milosevic's supporters claim vindication, and even supporters of the Tribunal as a concept have questioned its bureaucratic nature, and the wisdom of the prosecutors in going for American DA-style overkill on the charges against him. The court tried, arguably to a fault, to be fair in its accommodation of the eccentricities of the accused, not least his refusal of defense lawyers.

Those who want to consider Milosevic as a martyr for his four-year trial should pause to consider how glad those 7,000 or 8,000 people slaughtered like sheep after the fall of Srebrenica would have been even for a summary Guantanamo-style hearing. As some complain about the medical treatment of Milosevic, who was able to summon friendly doctors from around the world, they may wish to recall the 260 patients from the hospital in Vukovar that Milosevic's army summarily shot.

At the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt caused ripples by referring to "banality of evil." Slobodan Milosevic was as banal as they come. Personally, he was no racist, nor even a Serb nationalist. He was an ambitious and ruthless communist party apparatchik who was not even particularly socialist in his beliefs or his practices.

However, he realized what a potent weapon Serb nationalism was in his prolonged putsch to take personal control over the ramshackle Yugoslav Federation. History teaches that there are few more dangerous forces than heavily armed groups afflicted with a sense of victimhood, no matter how irrational that sense may be.

For the best part of ten years, Milosevic brilliantly played the U.N., the Europeans and the Americans for suckers. Whenever his barbarities were on the verge of provoking action, he would go into deep negotiating mode, and immediately break whatever promises were being made (providing a model for Sudan's rulers in their procrastination over Darfur). Cynically, when they were no longer useful, he abandoned his Serb brothers in the Croatian Krajina, sold out his colleagues in the Bosnian Republika Srpska as soon they had become too much of an embarrassment, after Srebrenica.

In the end, he miscalculated over Kosovo. He had not realized that all across Europe new governments had taken office, who seemed to think that "never again" meant just that. Once Milosevic had set the game afoot, there were plenty of bad people to go round. The Hague Tribunal has Croats, Albanians and Bosnians in its cells, all charged with crimes against humanity. This is the victory of justice, not "victors' justice." In Milosevic's trial, witness after witness showed his direct command and control of the bloody events of an evil decade, even if, like Eichmann, his own hands had only ink stains, not blood stains.

With Milosevic gone, the court can no longer reach a verdict. There are retrospective arguments that the prosecution went for overkill with the charges. But the evidence that was uncovered left no doubt that overkill, in a most morbid sense, was what Milosevic practiced. If it can avoid the same mistakes of procedure and procrastination, if and when Milosevic's sidekicks, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are in the dock, then the Tribunal can regain much of the ground it has lost.

In the wake of Milosevic's death, we would do well not to discount the number of verdicts already reached against a variety of perpetrators. As with Milosevic's arrest and imprisonment, the Tribunal has decisively signaled an end to what President Mary Robinson of Ireland once called the "cycle of impunity," for war criminals.

In the future, despite the Bush administration's dogged resistance to the International Criminal Court, emulators of the Serb strongman should not have to wait so long for justice to be served. The new court is up and running, and already looking into the case of the Sudanese regime. The criminals in Khartoum, despite the soft shoe treatment from the rest of the world, stand a good chance of ending up in court and in prison for their misdeeds.

Ian Williams writes on the United Nations for AlterNet. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, The Nation and Salon.