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U.S.: Reaction -- Was Milosevic's Extradition Constitutional?

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. political leaders were quick to praise the unexpected extradition of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But there is the lingering question of whether the Serbian government violated the Yugoslav Constitution in surrendering Milosevic so abruptly. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully reports that the answer in Washington seems to be "No."

Washington, 29 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. leaders in Washington have high praise for the government of Serbia for extraditing former President Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague to face war-crimes charges.

At the White House, President George W. Bush issued a statement saying that the man who brought what he called "tragedy and brutality" to his country would now be held accountable. He said Washington is ready to help all of Yugoslavia in any way it can.

Minutes later, Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat-Delaware) -- chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- said the government of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic made the right decision in sending Milosevic to face the international war crimes tribunal.

"I want to say to the Serbian people: You've done the right thing. You've done the right thing for humanity, you've done the right thing for justice, and you've done the right thing for your country. And I believe, after a full and fair trial of Mr. Milosevic, that the Serbian people will, for the first time in a long time, be freed of the burden that had been imposed upon them by this man."

But the questions remain: Did Djindjic act within the bounds of law? Or did he simply act out of expedience?

Yugoslavia has been in desperate need of aid since the NATO bombing campaign of 1999. But Western leaders insisted they would not give full assistance until Milosevic was removed from power and brought before the tribunal at The Hague.

Constitutional lawyer Vojislav Kostunica defeated Milosevic for Yugoslavia's presidency last September but resisted pressure to arrest and extradite him. He argued that Yugoslav law forbids the extradition of citizens to foreign countries. Besides, he said, the tribunal was nothing more than a tool of NATO.

At the same time, Western nations were planning a conference of potential donors in Brussels to help rebuild Yugoslavia with perhaps as much as $1.3 billion in aid. But most observers agreed that the conference, which begins in Brussels on 29 June, would be a financial failure for Belgrade if the United States did not attend. Washington said it would stay away unless it was satisfied that the Yugoslav government was cooperating fully with the tribunal.

So Kostunica tried to find a legal way to deliver Milosevic to The Hague. First, he had him arrested on 1 April on local corruption charges. Then he tried -- without success -- to have the Yugoslav parliament pass a law permitting an extradition. Finally, last weekend, he managed to have his government issue an edict paving the way for a transfer to The Hague. On 27 June, the State Department announced the United States would send a representative to the donors conference.

But yesterday (Thursday) -- the eve of the Brussels conference -- Yugoslavia's Constitutional Court suspended the edict while it considered a challenge filed by Milosevic's lawyers. Hours later, Djindjic's government apparently sidestepped Kostunica's efforts and whisked Milosevic out of the country -- and in the process, perhaps violated the Yugoslav Constitution.

Senator Biden was asked about this. After some thought, he replied that Yugoslavia's Constitution is a relic of its communist past. And he noted that the parliaments and judiciaries of Serbia and Montenegro -- its smaller partner in the Yugoslav Federation -- are not yet mature democratic institutions. Therefore, he said, it would be fruitless to hold Yugoslavia to strict adherence to this constitution.

Ivo Daalder was a member of the White House's National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton and now serves as an international affairs analyst with the Brookings Institution, an independent policy research center in Washington. He says extraditing Milosevic is more a political matter than a constitutional one.

Daalder told our correspondent that Belgrade has always reserved the right to surrender the former Yugoslav president to The Hague, because the tribunal represents not a foreign state, but an institution of the United Nations, of which Yugoslavia is a member.

According to Daalder, it was Milosevic's allies in the Yugoslav parliament who prevented the passage of legislation to allow the routine extradition of citizens. And the Constitutional Court, which suspended the edict permitting the extradition, is also made up of Milosevic supporters.

"Old structures were prohibiting a new government from executing the policy it wanted to execute."

Despite the timing of Milosevic's extradition -- the day before the donors' conference -- Daalder says Djindjic did not act merely to ensure a flow of much-needed aid to his war-battered country. According to Daalder, the prospect of more than $1 billion in aid was a way to influence debate among his people -- and in the parliament.

"The presence of Milosevic in their midst was an obstacle to reform, was an obstacle to engaging with the international community and thereby, in fact, getting international assistance, no doubt. But it was [also] an obstacle to moving ahead -- that he represented the past, and one needed to move forward."

Gary Dempsey is a foreign affairs analyst at the Cato Institute, another Washington policy center. He told RFE/RL that he believes Serbia acted "extraconstitutionally." But he added that it had no choice, especially given the sorry state of the country's economy.

"As far as most people were concerned in Yugoslavia up to this point, there is no difference between the authoritarian rule of Milosevic and the democratic rule of Kostunica when it comes to their well-being and their standard of living."

Dempsey said that once Yugoslavia's economy -- with the help of foreign aid -- is headed in the right direction, its citizens will forget exactly how Milosevic was extradited.