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UN: Has Milosevic's Death Damaged The War Crime Tribunal's Credibility?

  • Jeremy Bransten

Carla Del Ponte, the UN's chief war crimes prosecutor (file photo) (AFP) The UN's chief war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, says the death of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic before the end of his trial makes it even more urgent that other war crimes indictees be brought to justice. But has the UN war crimes tribunal undermined its own credibility by failing to pass a verdict on Milosevic in over four years?


PRAGUE, March 13, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- By the time he was found dead in his jail cell on March 11, Slobodan Milosevic had already spent more than four years on trial at the UN War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).


More than four years without a verdict -- a verdict that will now never be delivered.


Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia, was the first head of state to be tried in an international court for genocide. That made his case precedent-setting.


Given the symbolic and psychological significance of the case and the amount of time, money, and effort spent on trying Milosevic, the lack of a final judgment is a huge disappointment to many.

"I think given the historical importance of what had happened in both Bosnia and in Kosovo, it would have been quite wrong to have gone for just a handful of sample charges."

The chief prosecutor in the case against Milosevic, Carla Del Ponte, has expressed her deep regret that the case ended with no verdict -- and said that Milosevic's death makes it even more urgent that former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and former leader of the Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic be captured and extradited to the court.


Former Balkan envoy Lord David Owen calls Milosevic's passing a "tragedy" for both Milosevic’s victims and for the Serb nation as it tries to emerge from the shadow of the Balkan wars.


"I can well understand why victims of the crimes feel let down," Owen said. "It's not as easy for them to turn the page and start afresh."


It may also be a lost opportunity to convince those Serbs who still believe that Milosevic and Serb forces did not commit war crimes. "I think the films of Serbs killing Muslims in Srebrenica, which have been shown on TV in Serbia, have had a big impact," Owen says, referring to a video broadcast on national television last year that provided conclusive evidence of the involvement of Serbian paramilitary in the 1995 slaughter of roughly 8,000 Muslims, the worst massacre in Europe since World War II . "But the verdict would have been the final element, if you like, in convincing them."


Tribunal Guilty As Charged


So is the war crimes tribunal at fault?


Marc Cogen, a professor of international law at Ghent University in Belgium, says yes. Measured against the standards of the Nuremberg Trials, which successfully convicted many leading architects of the Nazi regime in Germany, he argues that modern war crimes tribunals fall short.


"[That] is unfortunately true, not only for the War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia but also for the Rwanda Tribunal," he says. "Both international tribunals [...] disappoint because they do not deliver their judgments in a timely manner."


Milosevic faced 66 charges that included genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed during the wars in Croatia (1990-1995), Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995), and Kosovo (1998-1999).


The result was that the proceedings were immensely complicated, providing the defense with many opportunities to cause procedural delays. Milosevic, for example, was allowed to compile a witness list of 1,600 people.


Cogen is critical of this "grand-sweep approach." He says Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte would have done better to choose a simpler strategy, focusing on a few key charges, allowing her to prove her case rapidly and to achieve a conviction.


"Ms. Del Ponte is an excellent lawyer. I do not doubt her many qualities," Cogen says, but "she is too academic...[She] is like an historian, documenting every case of what happened in the Balkans and against the accused."


Instead, Cogen would like to see a war crimes prosecutor to be more like a prosecuting officer. "A prosecuting officer should make a case, the major points, and that's it," he says. "Leave the rest to historians."


Cogen says that, if it appears a case will drag on for several years, then prosecutors are not serving the interest of justice -- or the defendant -- by folding all the indictments into one trial.


"We should split the case into a series of cases because as long as you are not convicted, you are just accused of something. This is a matter of a fair justice system," says Cogen.


Ironically, that is what prosecutors at the much-criticized trial of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad have attempted to do, initially trying the former dictator on charges related to a single massacre.


The Case For The Defense


However, Christopher Greenwood, a professor of international law at the London School of Economics, argues that the tribunal and prosecution cannot be faulted for combining all of the indictments against the former Yugoslav leader.


"I think given the historical importance of what had happened in both Bosnia and in Kosovo, it would have been quite wrong to have gone for just a handful of sample charges," Greenwood contends. "It would, I think, have been regarded as a snub by many victims."


However, reactions so far suggest that many of Milosevic’s victims may today be feeling snubbed by the failure to produce a verdict.


Still, in Bosnia, Sarajevo’s leading newspaper, "Oslobodjenje," did find consolation in the judgment of history. As it noted in a March 13 editorial, "Hitler was not convicted either and the whole world knows what he did."


Another Sarajevo daily "Dnevni Avaz," said Milosevic will be remembered as "a man who launched and lost four wars, who lost his family, friends, home, and who most likely also lost what even the poorest have -- two square meters for a grave in his homeland."

Milosevic On Trial


For an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, click here.

Of related interest:

RFE/RL Special: The Collapse Of Tito's Yugoslavia

RFE/RL Special: Yugoslavia's Democratic Revolution

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