The right trial for Milosevic
by Michael Ignatieff
The Right Trial for Miloevic
What is to be done with Slobodan Milosevic? And who is to do it? The lines from Macbeth come to mind: We have scotch'd the snake, not kill'd it. This particular snake faces us all with the dilemma of balancing the demands of justice against the imperative of an orderly transition of power in Belgrade.
The new president, Vojislav Kotunica, has already said he will not hand Mr Miloevic over to the international tribunal in The Hague. Whether this position also applies to other Serbs who have been indicted notably, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic remains to be seen. But a refusal to cooperate with the tribunal violates international law and would prolong, rather than end, Serbia's status as a pariah nation.
Western governments have to make sure Mr Kotunica and the Serbian people understand that the indictment of Mr Miloevic was not a tendentious exercise in victor's justice. The charges against him are well founded, and the evidence strong. Nor was indicting him an attempt to criminalize the entire Serbian people. On the contrary, the indictment was meant to place guilt squarely on individuals' shoulders.
This message is not getting across. In its headlong rush to embrace the new regime, the European community has already lifted some sanctions against Yugoslavia despite Mr Kotunica's refusal to hand Mr Miloevic over. No more should be lifted until Mr Kotunica complies. Reconciliation with Serbia is urgent, but not at the expense of justice.
Sending Mr Miloevic to The Hague would take courage and would require Mr Kotunica to reverse his position. But in the present climate in Belgrade of justified rage at the Miloevic regime, such a reversal is politically possible. The trick is for Mr Kotunica to demonstrate to his electorate that in sending Mr Miloevic to The Hague, he is not doing the West's bidding, but serving Serbia's long-term interests. For who wants an unscotched snake in the backyard? Mr Kotunica should tell his people that sending Mr Miloevic and the others who have been indicted to The Hague rids the nation of a destabilizing factor and also draws a line under the past.
What stands in the way of such a decision now is that Mr Kotunica needs Yugoslavia's old apparatus and bureaucracy to run the country: by sending Mr Miloevic to The Hague, he might jeopardize his still uncertain hold on the machinery of power. Yet the demand for Mr Miloevic to stand trial is not coming only from the West. Mr Kotunica rode to power on a tidal wave of Serbian rage at the Miloevic regime, and this wave might well sweep him away if he allows Mr Miloevic to retire gracefully.
So if Mr Kotunica will not release Mr Miloevic to The Hague, sooner or later he will have to put him on trial in Belgrade. At first sight, this looks like a reasonable compromise. Justice would be served and the Serbs would get to author the process of coming to terms with the Miloevic legacy. But in The Hague, Mr Miloevic would be on trial for what he did in Kosovo, and if appropriate indictments followed, for what he did in Bosnia. In Belgrade, he would be on trial for what he did to Serbia: ruining the economy, terrorizing opponents and stealing elections. He should be tried for both.
So the claim that he should be tried by his own people in his own city turns out to be a lot less plausible on closer examination. No Serbian court is likely to indict him for war crimes. He must face justice on these counts so that no Balkan leader is ever tempted to commit similar state crimes in the future. He also needs a fair trial, one that has visible legitimacy. If Mr Miloevic fears victor's justice in The Hague, he has even more reason to fear victor's justice in Belgrade.
Thus for Slobodan Miloevic and his co-conspirators, all roads lead to The Hague. Western governments should not let their concern to ease Mr Kotunica's task allow them to forget the demands of justice.
This article appeared in The New York Times, 10 October 2000