bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
The right trial for Milosevic
by Michael Ignatieff

The Right Trial for Miloševic

Michael Ignatieff

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 Koštunica, has already said he will not hand Mr Miloševic 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 Koštunica and the Serbian people understand that the indictment of Mr Miloševic 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 Koštunica's refusal to hand Mr Miloševic over. No more should be lifted until Mr Koštunica complies. Reconciliation with Serbia is urgent, but not at the expense of justice.

Sending Mr Miloševic to The Hague would take courage and would require Mr Koštunica to reverse his position. But in the present climate in Belgrade of justified rage at the Miloševic regime, such a reversal is politically possible. The trick is for Mr Koštunica to demonstrate to his electorate that in sending Mr Miloševic 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 Koštunica should tell his people that sending Mr Miloševic 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 Koštunica needs Yugoslavia's old apparatus and bureaucracy to run the country: by sending Mr Miloševic to The Hague, he might jeopardize his still uncertain hold on the machinery of power. Yet the demand for Mr Miloševic to stand trial is not coming only from the West. Mr Koštunica rode to power on a tidal wave of Serbian rage at the Miloševic regime, and this wave might well sweep him away if he allows Mr Miloševic to retire gracefully.

So if Mr Koštunica will not release Mr Miloševic 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 Miloševic legacy. But in The Hague, Mr Miloševic 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 Miloševic fears victor's justice in The Hague, he has even more reason to fear victor's justice in Belgrade.

Thus for Slobodan Miloševic and his co-conspirators, all roads lead to The Hague. Western governments should not let their concern to ease Mr Koštunica's task allow them to forget the demands of justice.

This article appeared in The New York Times, 10 October 2000


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