Milosevic Throws Down the Gauntlet

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Milosevic appears before the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague

Even in the dock, Slobodan Milosevic is going to be a headache for world leaders. The deposed Serb strongman marked his first appearance before an international tribunal in The Hague — and the first-ever international indictment for war crimes of a former head of state — with predictable defiance. He snarled at the judge and challenged the right of the U.N.-mandated court to try him, insisting that the proceedings were simply a propaganda exercise to rationalize what he termed "war crimes" by NATO against Yugoslavia. Of course, such blather was never going to shake the conviction of the international community that had established the court precisely so that the men and women responsible for the Balkan bloodletting of the 1990s would be personally held to account. Back home in Yugoslavia, though, Milosevic's antics may yet strike a chord.

Although a majority of Serbs are happy to be rid of the man who authored so much of their misery, they have decidedly mixed feelings towards the International Criminal Tribunal and most would condemn NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia. President Vojislav Kostunica, for example, makes no secret of the fact that he believes the tribunal is biased against Serbs, and had insisted that Milosevic be first processed by the Yugoslav judiciary before being extradited. It is these sentiments that the former strongman was trying to tap when he appeared in court Tuesday, suggesting that the trial may yet become a rallying point for nationalist Serbs and cause political problems at home for the post-Milosevic leadership.

Catharsis and discomfort

Then again, such problems may be symptomatic of the widespread denial that persists among Serbs over some of the crimes committed in their name in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, and the trial — together with the recent discovery of mass graves inside Serbia containing bodies moved from Kosovo, and an increasing willingness of witnesses to come forward — could also prove cathartic.

Today's Serb leaders, however, aren't the only politicians who are a little uncomfortable with the proceedings unfolding in The Hague. A number of Western leaders had to deal with the strongman over the past decade, reaching deals and accommodations in efforts to stabilize the increasingly imperfect world of the simmering Balkans. Richard Holbrooke, Lords Carrington and Owen and other senior Western officials spent hours behind closed doors on Milosevic's sofa without even the presence of translators (the strongman had been a banker before he became president, and prides himself on his command of English). His performance on Tuesday suggests he plans to do his best to turn his trial into a political tribunal of his nemeses, and he'll almost certainly do his utmost to embarrass the Western powers who at different points in the '90s treated him variously as the guarantor of Balkan stability and the fount of Balkan instability.

But the discomfort engendered by the Milosevic trial goes far deeper than the possibility of exposing Western prevarication as the Balkans unraveled. The very precedent of empowering an international judiciary to go after those accused of war crimes has many in the corridors of power alarmed. Washington is opposed to the creation of a permanent tribunal under U.N. auspices for just such purposes, for fear that such an institution could be turned against the world's only superpower. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has been even more direct, calling for limits on "universal jurisdiction" prosecutions. Kissinger, of course, has some personal cause for concern — a French judge recently tried (unsuccessfully) to interrogate him over Washington's relationship to human rights abuses in Latin America during his tenure as President Nixon's National Security Adviser, and others have mooted indicting him over the bombing of Cambodia. But his concerns are more generally related to the transaction of geopolitics.

Destabilizing geopolitics?

Human rights law has never been at the center of the conduct of foreign affairs, and Kissinger and others believe it could have a destabilizing effect. For example, there are efforts currently underway in Belgian courts to indict Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon over the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut — for which a 1983 Israeli government inquiry found Sharon "indirectly responsible." The Israelis may dismiss this as a propaganda exercise, but if the rules of immunity and cross-border prosecution begin to change, such endeavors could complicate efforts to mediate conflicts, critics argue.

Like the earlier attempts to prosecute former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, the Milosevic trial further erodes a time-honored tradition of peacefully easing dictators out of power by offering them comfortable retirement on the French Riviera. Would Pinochet or Haiti's "Baby Doc" Duvalier have handed over power if all they had to look forward to was court and prison? Unlikely. But advocates of justice-without-borders and geopolitical imperatives counter by asking whether the prospect of trial and punishment might not have restrained their behavior while in power. As complicated as the precedent set by Milosevic's trial may be in the present, its most fervent advocates see it as an investment in the future — by sounding a warning that crimes against humanity will have consequences, no matter how powerful their perpetrators.