bosnia report
New Series No: 51-52 April - July 2006
MiloŇ°evic - the trial continues
by Paul Garde

Slobodan Miloševićis no more. No one can rejoice over the death of a man, however wicked, once he has been rendered incapable of doing further harm. We are simply aware that this criminal career is over, this Shakespearian drama ended. The man’s sudden demise is frustrating for the victims of wars and massacres who must now give up the hope of seeing the main author of their sufferings formally convicted. It is a setback for the international criminal tribunal at The Hague (ICTY), which sees four years of intensive work halted without a conclusion and itself exposed to criticism for the malfunctioning of its prison regime. The idea of international justice risks being devalued in some people’s eyes.

If we wish to assess the event properly, however, we must relate it to the only stakes that count. The ICTY is not an end in itself. It has meaning only if it contributes to making ‘never again’ a reality. Public identification, by an impartial arbiter, of the individuals guilty of crimes should serve to deter possible imitators, and to refute the inculpation of entire peoples - something that would risk fuelling future conflicts. The raison d’être of the tribunal, as was formerly the case with Nuremberg, is above all pedagogic.

The death of Miloševićcertainly in the short term erodes the tribunal’s authority in Serbia. ‘They failed to protect him, they failed to look after his health’, even ‘they poisoned him’: circumstances are favourable for the propagation of such rumours, which arise so easily around a prisoner. The Balkans provide favourable terrain for the propagation of myths. This one will spread all the more easily in that denigration of the tribunal has for a decade been elevated in Serbia to the rank of a literary genre. Several books and countless articles have been devoted to it. The very idea that a judge might be impartial is intolerable to the nationalists.

However, if the ‘conspiracy against Serbia’ thesis finds a fresh argument here, does that mean it will gain fresh devotees? Not necessarily. It is a congenital feature of nationalism, waxing and waning with it. It was almost universally accepted ten years ago, but has not ceased to ebb since then; perhaps it still commands a majority in public opinion, but not in the younger generations, who see their country’s future with more realism and are less obsessed by its mythic past.

In the longer term, and on a more general level, is it so serious that no sentence has been passed on the guilty man? Adolf Hitler too escaped his judges, but has not thereby been rehabilitated. The four years of work on the Milošević case have not been lost. They have left behind hundreds of thousands of pages (see These documents, and the millions of pages dealing with the other 89 cases initiated by the tribunal, constitute an irreplaceable documentation for future historians. The meticulousness of the investigatory work, rich in lessons, compels admiration even in the absence of a final verdict.

Aggression manifest

The court at The Hague tries only war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity. Its statutes ignore the charge that was primary in those of Nuremberg: ‘crimes against peace’. It judges impartially crimes committed by the aggressors and the victims of aggression. And the fact that there really is an aggressor is so manifest that, even without being acknowledged, it everywhere leaps out of the case files.

First quantitatively. Of the 90 cases initiated between 1994 and 2005, 66 - i.e. 73% - involve Serb indictees, 17 Croats, 4 Bosniaks, 2 Albanians and 1 a Macedonian. These figures are not made public. The tribunal does not have the right to mention them. However, anyone can easily and legitimately work them out from published documents. Secondly, the responsibility for crimes cannot be established without investigating - as high up the chain as possible - who took the crucial decisions. Here, the answer is contained precisely in the Miloševićcase file, the only one relating simultaneously to all three wars: Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo. So far as the last-named is concerned, the direct responsibility of the defendant as president of FRY is manifest. For the other two, his determining role as president of Serbia, albeit masked, is clearly proven. Going still farther back, he was the one who from 1987 on took the initiative in breaking the taboo that had previously stigmatized nationalism, and in placing the state and party apparatus at the disposal of the very demons which, under Tito, those authorities had sought more or less effectively to contain. He was the one who thus made the conflicts inevitable.

Some people maintain that, the better to convince Serb public opinion, Miloševićshould have been brought to justice in his own country. This is open to doubt. A Serb tribunal, even had it not yielded to the immense pressures to which it would inevitably have been subjected, would have prioritized charges internal to Serbia: abuse of power, embezzlement, political assassinations, wrongs inflicted upon the Serbs themselves by the war policy. It would have left in the shadows the infinitely greater sufferings inflicted upon neighbouring peoples, and encouraged the Serbs to continue seeing themselves solely as victims. Catharsis can take place only if every people, and especially the people to which the aggressors belong, first recognizes the culpability of its own members towards others.

Serb public opinion must also be convinced, by the evidence of the facts, that crime does not pay and the path of nationalist claims leads nowhere. In 1945 the Allies made no territorial gift to the German Reich, which enabled them a little later - with the Marshall Plan - to bestow financial gifts upon the democratic Federal Republic. The international community, particularly the EU, should strengthen the sovereignty and unity of Bosnia, reducing the role of the entities. It should abandon the therapeutic zeal which on paper maintains links that have long been fictive binding Montenegro and Kosovo to Serbia, against the will of their populations and without any utility for solving their serious problems. It should strengthen pressure for the surrender of Ratko Mladić and other indictees living in Serbia, and finally show proof of determination to capture Radovan Karadžić.

Any equivocation (of which there is plenty, notably on the part of France) is a signal inciting Serb public opinion to go on pursuing the nationalist utopia. If that public opinion becomes convinced that those demands are inescapable, the government will become more ready to satisfy them, and then - but only then - will the country be fully able to take its allotted place in the European family. In Titoist Yugoslavia, it was the perpetual lie of the regime that encouraged the latent survival of dangerous passions. Today, even without an official verdict, the truth should nonetheless be revealed, and in the very long term a generation will abate those passions.

Finally, let us spare a thought for another Serb death: that of Zoran Đinđić, murdered three years ago on 12 March 2003. The man who had the courage to arrest Miloševićand transfer him to The Hague, and who paid for it with his life.

This article has been translated from Libération (Paris), 20 March 2006


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