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Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington: Negotiating With A War Criminal?

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 28 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The decision of the UN War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague to indict Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes may complicate but will not preclude negotiations between NATO and the Belgrade leader.

It may complicate talks both by the impact it will have on Milosevic and by the consequences it will have on Western governments who want to resolve the Kosovo crisis.

Milosevic will certainly view this action as another indication that the international community has no real interest in reaching an accord that would leave him in power. And he is likely to insist that the international community not move to bring him to trial if it wants an agreement with him.

At the same time, Western governments are likely to face new pressures from public opinion to abstain from talking to a man who has been indicted for what he and his regime have done in Kosovo. And consequently, they almost certainly will find it more rather than less difficult to enter into negotiations anytime soon.

Not surprisingly, many commentators are already suggesting that this action will prolong the war by preventing talks between the international community and Belgrade. But there are at least three good reasons for thinking that such predictions will not prove to be true.

First, as former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin pointed out, "you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends." And to make peace with them requires some kind of contact. Now that many governments have rejected the concept and consequences of unconditional surrender, governments and international organizations frequently have had to talk to those with whom they have been locked in conflict.

Sometimes these conversations are conducted through third parties -- as is now the case with Russian mediation efforts in Yugoslavia. But quite often, governments talk directly to their enemies, even to regimes guilty of the worst forms of human rights abuses. The U.S., for example, defeated the Iraqi army in the field but ended the Gulf War via direct contacts with Baghdad officials.

Second, despite understandable reluctance at talking to war criminals indicted or otherwise, most people and most governments have other and often competing interests. Many in Western governments find Slobodan Milosevic a noxious figure, but neither they nor the people they represent are committed to doing everything that may be necessary to drive him from power and bring him to trial.

If Milosevic is willing to compromise, they almost certainly will be open to compromise in order to avoid the consequences of not doing so. And when that happens, many who now oppose talking to an indicted war criminal will welcome the results and may even praise Milosevic's role in reaching them.

And third, Milosevic has only been indicted not convicted. While most observers are confident that he is guilty of all the crimes he is charged with and more, nearly all of them -- and especially governments with broader interests -- may choose to act on this distinction even if they choose to deny that that is what they are doing in order to gain an opening.

There is ample precedent for that: In Bosnia, the NATO-led forces have chosen not to arrest some of the indicted war criminals out of concern that such actions might exacerbate the situation. And while many analysts have suggested that this was a mistake and contributed to Milosevic's own behavior, few of those responsible for the lives of soldiers there share their pessimistic assessment. Implicitly noting this precedent, the international community could effectively put off Milosevic's trial date forever as part of a deal that would allow Kosovo Albanians to return home and the Yugoslav president to remain in office, albeit with diminished powers and diminished possibilities.

Such an outcome almost certainly will be morally unsatisfactory to many. Given what the Milosevic regime has done, many people around the world are likely to demand that something be done. But all too few of them appear prepared to back the kinds of actions that would be needed to force Milosevic to give himself up to the international tribunal.

Both because of the immediate problems this indictment creates and because of the likely outcome of this crisis, many observers are likely to conclude that the indictment handed down at The Hague was meaningless and unimportant.

But such judgments too are not only premature but almost certainly wrong. On the one hand, the action of the War Crimes Tribunal sends a powerful signal that there are international standards and that at least some leaders will be held accountable, a remarkable step forward from only a century ago when there were no such standards or means to enforce them.

And on the other, this indictment almost certainly means that Milosevic will not be able to travel outside his own country except to those states which do not respect the international rules of conduct. And consequently, like former Chilean ruler Augusto Pinochet, Milosevic may find himself more trapped by this indictment than either he or those decrying it now expect.

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