After Milosevic

Why the international community turned the ineffectual, authoritarian former president of Yugoslavia into evil personified.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics World

Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, was an authoritarian ruler and a not insignificant player in the civil wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. But how did he come to be seen as evil personified, with his passing regretted because it has denied international justice?

Milosevic died on 11 March in his prison cell at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague (the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or ICTY). His death came shortly after he was refused permission to travel to Moscow for medical treatment, and only months before his trial was due to end. Milosevic’s life and political career are now inseparable from the beleaguered and tortuous history of the Tribunal itself. Already under the spotlight following the recent suicide of another Serb imprisoned in The Hague, the tribunal is now widely perceived to be in crisis, its procedures, care of prisoners and even its purpose under scrutiny (1). Chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte has been reduced to fending off rumours that Milosevic was poisoned (2).

But the tribunal has been tottering for some time. Disoriented from the very beginning by Milosevic’s refusal to recognise the jurisdiction or legitimacy of the court, the prosecution has failed to restore any legal credibility to the proceedings. Many prosecution witnesses have proved unreliable; the tribunal has consistently relied on the use of hearsay evidence; the impartiality of the judges has been called into question; the transparency and independence of the legal process has been damaged by the US government censoring the testimony of chief witnesses…the list goes on (3).

The legal shortcomings of the tribunal are hardly surprising when one considers how it was formed by Western powers, and how it has been subservient to their political needs. This is evident in the way the prosecution has flouted Article 16 of the Tribunal Charter, which stipulates that the prosecutor shall act independently without instruction from any government. Yet Tribunal prosecutor Louise Arbour contributed to NATO’s war effort against Yugoslavia in 1999, by issuing indictments in the midst of the bombing campaign based on intelligence data provided by NATO. She even allowed the former British foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, to announce his intention to punish violations of international law at a jointly-held press conference (4). For all this, liberal opinion-formers who talk about the ‘legal limbo’ of Guantanamo have been silent about the legal shenanigans in The Hague (5).

How did this court come about? Milosevic was extradited from Yugoslavia on 28 June 2001, in defiance of the rulings of the Yugoslav constitutional court, nine months after being ousted by an uprising whose democratic credentials have since been called into question (6). The Tribunal itself was established by the United Nations Security Council in May 1993, on the initiative of the USA in the midst of the war in Bosnia (1992-1995). Yet it was only six years later, during NATO’s 1999 war on Yugoslavia, that Milosevic was actually arraigned for crimes against humanity committed in Kosovo. In late 2001, del Ponte also brought charges of genocide against Milosevic in respect of the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia, thereby violating a keystone of customary extradition law – namely that you can only be tried for the crime for which you were originally extradited.

Many commentators and international dignitaries have now observed that, with Milosevic’s death, it will be impossible legally to affirm his guilt for atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia, and indeed even to entrench the idea that a genocide took place (7). Apart from the fact that the prosecution itself publicly conceded some time ago that it had failed to demonstrate Milosevic’s complicity in genocide, we should consider why so many people are willing to grant the final word on what happened in the former Yugoslavia to these legal proceedings (8). The belief in Milosevic’s guilt has been implacable throughout mainstream opinion, as is clear from the various obituaries headlined ‘The Butcher of Belgrade’ (9). The conventional wisdom is that he rose to power by inflaming the nationalism of the Serbian masses, whose xenophobia repulsed the other republics comprising Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, prompting Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia to secede from the federation. Milosevic responded by launching four Nazi-style wars of aggressive expansion and ‘medieval savagery’, encompassing extermination, rape and ethnic cleansing, in order to establish a ‘Greater Serbia’ on the ruins of former Yugoslavia.

Yet there is a distinct tone of bad faith here. The conviction in Milosevic’s guilt as the ‘Butcher of Belgrade’ begs the question: why do we need a legal process to prove what everyone apparently already knows?

The dynamics of Yugoslav disintegration were set in motion, not by the expansionist instincts of the Serbian masses, but by the Western powers, who began competing with each other legally to recognise and give support to one ethnic group against another in the early 1990s. German and EU recognition of Croatia and Slovenia in 1991 was followed by US recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. Granting diplomatic recognition to secessionist groups arbitrarily elevated the wishes of one group of Yugoslavs over those, including the large Serbian minorities scattered throughout the former Yugoslavia, who wanted to remain part of the federation. Thus the stage was set for inter-communal conflict.

The bias against the Serbs encouraged the other ethnic groups to resist a negotiated settlement, and to precipitate further outside intervention on their behalf. Take the example of Bosnia, where the European Community organised an independence vote in 1992, disregarding the republic’s constitution, which stipulated that such a vote could be taken only upon agreement between Bosnia’s three ‘constituent peoples’ (Muslims, Croats and Serbs). The Bosnian Serbs boycotted the election, and the consequent creation of an artificial state assured the outbreak of war. This was clearly the result of decisions made by the Western powers. Even Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the highly interventionist former UN secretary-general, openly blames the competitive diplomacy between the US and Europe for prolonging the bloodshed in Bosnia (10).

In addition, analysis of Milosevic’s politics yields little evidence of expansionist megalomania. For example, at the key stage of the conflict, Milosevic, isolated and under pressure, was the one most keen to reach a compromise – while the Bosnian Muslim government under Alija Izetbegovic, emboldened by Western backing, broke off various deals. Anyone who bothers to go through Milosevic’s tedious speeches, often cited as instrumental in stoking Serbian nationalism (12), will find them littered with invocations of multi-ethnic harmony. Far from being a messianic demagogue, he was a notoriously wooden orator, more at home with backroom intrigue and opportunism than with mass politics. While Milosevic’s rule in Serbia was sometimes violent and often authoritarian, he was democratically elected, with his powerbase residing among pensioners, the poor working class and the peasantry, who supported his half-hearted upkeep of old-style socialist economic policies, and were stirred by his rhetoric of defending Tito’s Yugoslavia, by defending the interests of the Serbian minorities outside Serbia.

The Western powers may not have been directly culpable for the majority of the bloodshed in the Balkans, but they were politically responsible for fomenting and entrenching divisions between ethnic groups – for setting the process of civil war in motion and for prolonging it through policies so meddlesome that they left even Boutros-Ghali aghast.

For the West, Milosevic and the Serbs filled the role of the aggressors, the convenient all-purpose scapegoats for the bloodshed. While mainstream liberal opinion has finally conceded that the Serbs were not the only ones to commit atrocities in the former Yugoslavia (13), it cannot tear itself away from the understanding of the conflict in terms of evil aggressors (the Serbs) versus innocent victims (the Croats and Muslims, and later Kosovo Albanians) – a portrayal that does not benefit any side in the conflict. The Albanians and Bosnian Muslims are portrayed as pitiful creatures that need safeguarding in a menagerie of international protectorates established over Bosnia and Kosovo. The Serbs, on the other hand, can only be re-admitted to the ‘international community’ after the whole nation has collectively grovelled at the feet of UN prosecutors.

This portrayal of the conflict reflects a new morally-charged understanding of international affairs. When politics and conflict is criminalised, then there must by definition be a criminal, a pathological aggressor, and an innocent, a victim. This justice dispensed by the Tribunal represents a new type of power in international affairs, one that derives its authority from a disembodied sphere of international human rights law, detached from any political and national context, and exercised by a new, unelected caste of judges, itinerant prosecutors and human rights lawyers, over the heads of the representatives of sovereign states. Both politics and law have suffered from this attempt to redefine the exercise of power.

For all the handwringing obituaries, the truth is that Milosevic was a minor, relatively ineffectual figure in the history of Yugoslavia’s final days.

Philip Cunliffe studies international relations at King’s College London. Email him at

Read on:

spiked-issue: Former Yugoslavia

(1) Worst outcome for Milosevic tribunal, BBC News, 11 March 2006

(2) Milosevic feared poisoning – aide, BBC News, 12 March 2006

(3) See, for example: Neil Clark, The Milosevic trial is a travesty, Guardian, 12 February 2004; John Laughland, ‘Victor’s Justice’, Spectator, 21 March 2002; John Laughland, ‘Let Slobbo Speak for Himself’, Spectator, 10 July 2004; and David Chandler, International Justice, New Left Review, Nov-Dec 2000.

On the behaviour of the tribunal judges, even British human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson was moved to observe that the behaviour of the Tribunal’s first president, Antonio Cassesse ‘would have disqualified him for bias in many domestic legal systems’ (Kirsten Sellars, The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, [2002], p.181)

(4) David Chandler, International Justice, New Left Review, Nov-Dec 2000

(5) See, for example, the gloating editorial in the Guardian, Death of a tyrant and a loser, 13 March 2006

(6) From ‘People Power’ to public passivity, by Philip Cunliffe, 4 October 2005

(7) See, for example Peter Beaumont, Slobodan Milosevic dies alone with history demanding justice, Observer, 12 March 2006 and BBC News, In quotes: Milosevic death, 12 March 2006

(8) See John Laughland ‘Victor’s Justice’, Spectator, 21 March 2002; and Chris Stephenm, Milosevic: no link to genocide found, Guardian, 10 October 2004
. The prosecution has not been able to add anything to he Dutch government report in to the massacre Srebrenica, that confirmed that Milosevic had no role in massacre.

(9) See for example Marcus Tanner, The bloody life and times of the butcher of Belgrade, Independent on Sunday, 12 March 2006 and David Harrison, Milosevic found dead in his cell, Daily Telegraph, 12 March 2006

(10) Boutros Boutros-Ghali Unvanquished: A US-U.N. Saga (1999), p.247

(11) Milosevic speech 28th June, Kosovo 1989 ref

BBC Summary of World Broadcasts EE/0496 B/1 – B/2 30June 1989

(12) See Roger Cohen, To His Death in Jail, Milosevic exalted image of Serb Suffering, New York Times, 12 March 2006

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Topics World


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