More to it than Milosevic

However Slobodan Milosevic's trial at the Hague turns out, it will be highly questionable whether justice has been done.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic may be guilty of many crimes. No doubt there will be time enough to sort through the facts in the long months before he stands trial at the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

For now, however, let us question a couple of conclusions to which many commentators appear to be leaping.

First, Milosevic is not single-handedly responsible for the wars that have torn apart what was Yugoslavia over the past decade. The lion’s share of the blame actually belongs to the Western powers, whose interventions have exacerbated the Yugoslav crisis at every stage.

Second, whatever Milosevic has or has not done, the war crimes tribunal is not the place to hand down justice. It is less a court of international law than a creature of global power politics.

Ever since at least 1992, when the German-led EU recognised the breakaway republics of Croatia and Slovenia, and the USA recognised the independence of Bosnia, the interference of outside powers has provided the spark to set the Yugoslav tinderbox ablaze. Time and again international intervention has only helped to perpetuate and intensify the Balkan conflict, as it spread from Croatia through Bosnia to Kosovo and now Macedonia.

Milosevic’s Serbia was usually held up as the major villain of the piece. But in truth it is hard to see how he was much different from the other Stalinist-bureaucrats-turned-nationalist-politicians engaged in a local power struggle in the Balkans. Yet the Serbs alone were singled out as ‘the new Nazis’, and bombed by NATO.

So it is that Milosevic becomes the first-ever head of state to be brought before an international war crimes tribunal. However the trial turns out (and the odds are clearly stacked against him), it will be highly questionable whether justice has been done.

The issue of war crimes has always been politically loaded. One man’s act of war is another’s atrocity. Whether or not an action becomes defined as a war crime by the West tends to depend less on the numbers killed or the methods employed than on whose finger was on the trigger.

So far Milosevic has been charged with committing crimes against the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo. His regime’s record of repression in that province is certainly grim. But the issue of war crimes in Kosovo remains shrouded in the smoke of propaganda.

In order to justify NATO’s war against the Serbs in 1999, we heard claims that up to 100,000 Kosovo Albanians had perished. After its extensive investigations, the tribunal now reports having found a total of ‘almost 4000 bodies or parts of bodies’ (a figure that includes combatants and civilians, Albanians and Serbs).

After recent reports of some more graves, the figure of ‘up to 100,000’ Albanian dead has been bandied about once again, with claims that the Serbs hid and destroyed the bodies. The truth of these claims remains to be tested. We might recall, however, that shortly after the Kosovo war we were told that the Serbs had been burning thousands of bodies in the Trepca mine complex – ‘the Serb Auschwitz’, as one paper called it. The tribunal subsequently discovered no evidence of any bodies or remains at Trepca.

Not only are the facts in doubt, but the broader question remains: should the war crimes tribunal at The Hague sit in judgement on a former head of a sovereign state?

It is arguable that the existence of this Tribunal is itself an infringement of international law. It was set up by the major powers that sit permanently on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – the USA, Britain, France, Russia and China – in contravention of the UN’s own principle of non-intervention in the affairs of member states.

The tribunal has been justified on the bogus basis that the Yugoslav struggle was not a civil war but an international conflict. In truth, the only thing that internationalised that rolling civil war was the intervention of the permanent members of the UNSC.

Alongside unresolved questions about the legality of the tribunal, there are also problems with the procedures it has employed. There are no juries, and things have been permitted during trials at The Hague – like hearsay evidence and anonymous witnesses – that have no place in a just system.

But then, the primary purpose of the tribunal has always seemed to be more political than legal. It embodies the right of the international powers to sit in judgement on the world, and to draw a line between the civilised West and the rest. The double standards behind the kind of justice such a body dispenses has become clear in plans to establish a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC).

NATO secretary general Lord Robertson (UK defence secretary during the war with Serbia) has suggested that most defendants at the ICC would probably come ‘from countries with no super power support’. Last year, the then-foreign secretary Robin Cook spelt it out even more bluntly, announcing on BBC’s Newsnight that ‘If I may say so, this is not a court set up to bring to book prime ministers of the United Kingdom or presidents of the United States’.

There is no danger of any of the NATO leaders responsible for the bombing of civilian targets in Serbia or Kosovo – like, say, Robertson or Cook – being hauled before an international tribunal.

The speed with which Milosevic was handed over by the new Yugoslav government, apparently in defiance of its own constitutional law, reflects the degree of authority that the West (aka ‘the international community’) now exercises over global affairs. In return for a few favours and handouts of aid, the USA, EU and NATO now seem capable of recreating any society in their own image, all in the name of justice and democracy.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, more trouble is brewing across the Balkans. With Milosevic gone, the Western governments will have to find some new bogeymen to blame for the mess that is largely of their making.

Read on:

Milosevic might be a monster – but this is no way to bring him to justice, Mick Hume, The Times (London), 2 July 2001

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