Milosevic Trial Not In Vain

Aryeh Neier is the president of the Open Society Institute and Soros foundations network.

Slobodan Milosevic cheated justice, and by doing so demonstrated the futility of attempting to deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity through international prosecutions.

That, at least, is the conclusion that some people have reached after Milosevic's death in a Hague prison: the fact that he was able to drag out his trial for four years and still escape a verdict is considered proof that the international community is wasting its resources by putting such people on trial for their misdeeds.

Even the most dedicated partisans of international justice concede that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has had many shortcomings. All those associated with it were new to such proceedings, and had to learn on the job, as there had been no such bodies since the courts at Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II.

Moreover, the post-WWII bodies were tribunals in which the war's victors judged the losers, and those prosecuted were already in custody. The ICTY, by contrast, has no capacity of its own to arrest defendants.

It must rely on persuasion to secure cooperation by others—co-operation that is still being withheld in the case of the two most notorious defendants from the Bosnian War, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

Until Tony Blair and Robin Cook became, respectively, Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom in 1997, four years after the ICTY was established, NATO troops in Bosnia failed to arrest indicted suspects even when they ran into them.

By now, of course, 133 defendants from all parties to the wars in ex-Yugoslavia have appeared before the Tribunal, charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide.

These are highly complex cases, frequently involving not only novel issues under international law, but also thousands of witnesses—often traumatized by their suffering—dispersed to many lands, the constant need for high-quality simultaneous translations, and disruptive tactics by some defendants.

Yet the proceedings against 85 of them, including appeals, have been completed.

In trying them, the ICTY has been a model of fairness at all times.

The mountains of evidence in its records make the horrendous crimes committed in the wars in ex-Yugoslavia comparable in the extent of their documentation to those by the Nazis.

Inevitable efforts by demagogues to revise the history of what took place in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s will be complicated by the availability of that evidence, including the facts compiled during the Milosevic trial.

Far from being a failure, the ICTY has inspired the establishment of several other such courts, including those for Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and the permanent International Criminal Court.

Even heads of state have not escaped these bodies.

Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, and then Serbia, died in prison.

Biljana Plavsic, the President of the Bosnian Serb Republic after Karadzic, expressed remorse for her crimes, pleaded guilty, and is serving a prison sentence.

Jean Kambanda, former Prime Minister of Rwanda, pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity and genocide and is serving a life sentence in prison.

We are thus slowly reaching the point where some of those contemplating crimes such as those committed by Slobodan Milosevic must recognize that one day they could be held accountable.

Charles Taylor was President of Liberia when the Tribunal for Sierra Leone indicted him.

He had to flee his country, paving the way for the democratic transition that resulted in the recent election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Taylor still faces the prospect of trial and, another former dictator, Saddam Hussein, is now on trial before a national court in Iraq.

Persisting on the path of international justice will continue to require substantial resources.

Great as they are, the costs are trivial in comparison to the expense of humanitarian aid, international military intervention, and reconstruction assistance.

Most important, of course, is the need to prevent the suffering caused by the crimes that lead to international prosecutions; and when those crimes cannot be prevented, we must provide some comfort and redress to the victims and their families by doing justice.

Of course, the slow, tortuous process of international justice is often frustrating to the victims.

But it would be worse if those responsible for great crimes got away with it, as happened all too often in the past.

In the wake of Milosevic's death, Karadzic and Mladic should be brought before the ICTY, both to reinforce its work and to demonstrate to their victims that the international community is resolved not to allow their suffering to be forgotten.

The ICTY's mission is as valid and as vital as ever: to show that the era of impunity for some of humanity's worst crimes is coming to an end.

©2006 Project Syndicate

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