bosnia report
New Series No: 27-28 January - May 2002
Serbia and the Hague process
by Sonja Biserko

The long-awaited Milosevic trial has provoked great tensions in Serbian public opinion. Now that the first round of the court proceedings at The Hague is over, there is almost a sense of relief, which can be explained only by the current positive perception of the trial here. You get the impression it is being viewed as more of a sporting event, in which for the time being Milosevic is leading. Graffiti have appeared in Belgrade: ‘Slobo you’re the greatest!’ and ‘Slobo you’re a hero!’ Serbia has failed to exploit this confrontation with the world as a chance to show that it has distanced itself from Milosevic’s policies. Reactions to the beginning of the trial took the form of a national homogenization, thereby confirming that Milosevic and his policies enjoyed an almost plebiscitary support. Reactions along the lines of: ‘It is the Serb nation that is on trial’, or ‘The Hague is going to end in a debacle’, in essence abolish individual responsibility - which is what Milosevic is there for - and amount to an acceptance of collective responsibility.

The trial began with an explanation of the political context in which the crimes occurred. This gave Slobodan Milosevic a chance to put forward his own view of the situation, and in front of the whole world to indict NATO for resorting to terror against Yugoslavia, thereby probably winning the support of all anti-globalists. He behaves like a political actor in the fight against globalization, rather than someone accused of genocide and most serious crimes to have taken place in Europe since World War Two. His political speeches will not have any great influence in rebutting the Prosecution’s indictment, which charges him on 66 counts for grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, genocide and war crimes. In Serbia itself, however, he is enjoying an unprecedented success, and if he were in a position to do so would apparently win a new election. It is as though the Serbian public has forgotten the reasons why the Tribunal was set up. Only individuals seemingly think that refrigerator trucks and mass graves with the bodies of murdered Albanians round Belgrade, or even Srebrenica, Vukovar and Sarajevo, have anything to do with the work of the Tribunal. The Court will over time, as is its function, assist recognition of the scale of the crimes and the policies which led to them. The Hague will surely make a full investigation of specific crimes, thereby preventing the manipulations and interpretations of the war that are still operative here. This is just what everyone is most afraid of. Beneath the current exultation, and the denigration of the Tribunal, one can sense the panic that has seized many present and past holders of power.

Milosevic’s own behaviour - his arrogance, lack of scruple and indifference to the victims - has laid bare his fundamental rupture with the world and inability to understand the times in which we live. The decision to defend himself did not come as any surprise, given that he had previously claimed insistently not to recognize the Tribunal. This too well reflects his character and his need to oppose the whole world. However, the precision of some of his statements clearly reveals that whole teams and various services are working for him, and that the new regime (or at least part of it) has mobilized all available information and resources for his defence. Meanwhile this regime shows no readiness to cooperate with The Hague, either by providing that same documentation for inspection or by handing over Milosevic’s main collaborators. Milosevic is obviously aware of the fact that the trial could take different turns, especially once the issue of mass killings and mass graves begins to be confronted, so already he often mentions his collaborators: academicians, politicians, and other close partners in the project. The duration of the trial and the irrefutable evidence that will come into the open, as well as the testimony of ‘insiders’, could easily lead to his downfall and over time transform him into the chief witness of the whole trial. So it is hardly surprising that certain academicians have grown so nervous, and are persistently denying and minimizing the significance of the Memorandum [of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1986] in helping to formulate the national project. Milosevic can simply prove that he was given a ready-made plan, before being appointed to carry out the works.

The Hague Tribunal is an institution whose establishment became possible in a new international constellation, which opened a new space for international law. Looking at it in the long term, the proceedings at The Hague are a learning process not just for Serbia and the whole region, but also for the international community itself, which has played an active role in the Yugoslav events. Shaping this new mechanism of international relations is of historic significance. The process of establishing justice is an essential component of all post-conflict situations. So it is particularly important for the Milosevic trial to gain credibility also in Serbia itself, since this is the only way for Serbia to become normalized and to establish relations of trust with its neighbours.


This editorial has been translated from Helsinska povelja (Belgrade), February 2002


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