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Western Press Review: Milosevic Trial, U.S.-Iranian Relations, Assessing War On Terrorism

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 12 February 20023 (RFE/RL) -- Commentaries in the Western press focus largely on the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, which began today at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. Some commentators are calling it the most important war crimes trial since the 1945 Nuremberg trials of Nazi war crimes suspects.

Other issues of particular interest today include U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" and what it means for U.S.-Iranian relations, as well as analyzing the nature of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Matthias Rub discusses some of the political consequences of the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Rub writes that the trial "will have far-reaching ramifications" for political life in the former Yugoslavia, as well as for international politics and the development of international criminal justice.

One important political consequence, he says, will stem from what the trial stands to reveal about the involvement, or at least complicity, of other nations. In Rub's words: "[The] hearings will clearly reveal that Europe and the United States alike, starting in 1991, accepted for far too long as a partner the person chiefly responsible for the wars, and indeed paid court to him, though his machinations in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina had long been public knowledge."

He notes that world leaders treated Milosevic as an equal as late as 1995, at the signing of the Dayton peace accords -- less than six months after the massacre of 7,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica.

Rub says Milosevic's trial "will cast fresh light on the constraints that realpolitik imposes on international diplomacy. At the same time the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague will send out a message that no dictator will ever again walk away easily from his responsibility, however much power he once wielded..."


An editorial in "The Independent" of Britain notes that several observers have hailed the Milosevic trial as the most important war crimes trial since the 1945 Nuremberg trials of Nazi war crimes suspects. But the editorial says that "the years between Nuremberg and today have been an inglorious catalogue of failure by the international community to find a mechanism for handling accusations of crimes against humanity at the very highest level by ruthless individuals such as Pol Pot, Idi Amin [and] Augusto Pinochet. [The] trial of Mr. Milosevic is therefore a landmark in international humanitarian law. It represents the chance to set a new standard for a new century."

In addition, the editorial says, this trial "cannot fail to highlight the West's failure to stop Mr. Milosevic's tanks rolling into Croatia [and] all manner of outrage taking place under the noses of an ineffectual UN 'protection' force."

The paper goes on to note that The Hague court draws its judges from a range of nations that were not involved in the NATO campaign against Milosevic. It says Milosevic "should get a fair hearing there -- not least because the judges know that the tribunal itself will be on trial as much as the man.... [The] successful trial of Mr. Milosevic could send a signal that international justice not only works but is essential in a new world order."


An editorial in "The New York Times" says that, in contrast to several recent pro-Western demonstrations in Iran, a march yesterday to mark the 23rd anniversary of the Islamic revolution represented "a genuine popular backlash" against U.S. President George W. Bush's categorization of Iran as part of an "axis of evil." The paper says that this comment, made in his 29 January State of the Union address, "has clearly strengthened the hand of the hard-liners and forced reformers to prove their patriotism by denouncing the United States." But the paper writes that the U.S. goal for states like Iran, where it says "leaders with no public accountability [ship] arms to terrorists and thwart internal democratic change, should be that such rulers will be peacefully driven from power by internal domestic forces. [This] process of internal change, increasingly evident since the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, had been moving forward" in Iran, it says. "Now it seems that Iranians feel obliged to focus not on internal reform but on the United States."

The paper concludes that "it makes little sense to lose what leverage [the U.S.] may have in Tehran. [Over] the long term, improved relations with Iran would be a force for peace in the Middle East. There is a growing political force within Iran [which] would [be] welcome in many other countries. In Iran, it already exists, and we must nurture it."


In the German paper "Die Welt," Michael Stuermer says the U.S. has focused on the negative in classifying Iran as one-third of the "axis of evil," whereas Europe has a more positive view. These divergent views, he says, naturally fail to lead to a common policy. Iran, meanwhile, lives by a "double rule" of its own. In its parliament and government, the majority are pressing for reforms and an open policy toward the West. But the final decisions, Stuermer says, lie with what he calls the "black-turban Mullah-technocrats." The former have opposed Afghan warlords; the latter assist Al-Qaeda refugees.

Nevertheless, Stuermer says, realistic views are bound to prevail. Iran's technocrats, he writes, are aware of the country's faltering economic situation. Increasing unemployment is due to lack of technical progress, and the answer to the country's woes can only be found in the example of a Western society -- in a "free life," as Stuermer writes.


Writing in Austria's "Die Presse," Thomas Vieregge writes that U.S. President George W. Bush's harsh words regarding Iran are regrettable. He says 10 years of behind-the-scenes effort to build a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran have now been shattered by Bush's branding of Iran as a point in the "axis of evil." The country's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, may now come across as little more than a figurehead to the West. The failure of Western support, Vieregge writes, has exhausted the Iranian people's patience. Vieregge contemplates whether there is actually a strategy behind the U.S. president's words: "Did Bush, in his foresight, want to accelerate the process of discontent so that the people overthrow the Mullah regime in the same way as the Taliban was defeated?"


In "Eurasia View," journalist and Afghan-Iranian affairs analyst Camelia Entekhabi-Fard says Afghanistan's interim administration is eager to help reduce growing tensions between two of its strategic partners -- Iran and the United States. She cites Afghan officials as saying, "A better relationship between Washington and Tehran is seen as a key to Afghanistan's own stabilization."

Entekhabi-Fard writes: "Bush's mention of Iran in his State of the Union address caught some Afghan leaders by surprise. They noted that within hours of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Iranian president Mohammad Khatami had condemned the action. And following the start of U.S. strikes against Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, Tehran indicated it was willing to help rescue American pilots in the event of a shoot-down." In addition, she notes, the United States and Iran "were the two countries most responsible for forging the agreement that led to the [Afghan] interim government's creation" at the Bonn conference in December.

Entekhabi-Fard cites Afghan interim Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah as saying that U.S.-Iranian tensions now decrease the chances of Afghanistan being able to break out of its "cycle of violence."


An editorial in "The Irish Times" calls the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes and crimes against humanity "the most important such case since the Nuremberg prosecution of [Adolf] Hitler's Nazi colleagues." It adds, "On its conduct and outcome will depend the credibility and legitimacy of future exercises in international justice directed against sovereign political leaders."

The editorial notes that Milosevic and others still question the legitimacy of the court, and that this trial will either help put such doubts to rest or give more credence to the court's detractors. The paper writes: "Milosevic's strategy is to contest the court's right to try him by undermining its legitimacy. He has refused to recognize its authority, saying effectively that it represents victors' justice, having been established by a small group of his enemies on the United Nations Security Council in 1993."

The paper says that Milosevic "is well able to exploit political and diplomatic uncertainties surrounding the tribunal. That it was not endorsed by the UN General Assembly is a potential flaw in its legitimacy, given the ambiguous attitude the United States has taken toward its activities and the hostility shown to the International Criminal Court which might succeed it. Russia, too, is reportedly unwilling to endorse the ICC and wants to see an end to this tribunal by 2007."


An editorial in the French daily "Le Monde" says that the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the international court at The Hague is a landmark in the slow emergence of a world order governed by the rule of law. For the first time, it notes, a former head of state is being tried for crimes against his people. But unfortunately, it says, this advance is tarnished by the fact that at the same time, the United States is denying the rights of prisoners from Afghanistan by only classifying Afghan nationals as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. That the United States wants to try the Al-Qaeda terrorist suspects before special military courts also "goes against the spirit and form of The Hague," says "Le Monde."

The paper goes on to say that Milosevic is not alone in challenging the legitimacy of the court. "All governments [try] to defend their absolute sovereign power," it says. It adds that one only has to see how difficult it as been for the UN to obtain a conviction of anyone on the long list of criminal heads of state to realize the inherent difficulties faced by the emergence of international law. But the Milosevic trial is an opportunity to advance international law, the paper says. "Justice is the best defense against terrorism," it concludes.


In a contribution to "The Boston Globe," former U.S. senator Gary Hart says that the "already fragile distinction" between war and crime disappeared in September. He says the U.S. is now "trying to fight terrorism with traditional weapons of war. But terrorism is not war." He adds, "It is crime on a mass scale."

Hart continues: "The historic and profound differences between war and crime must be clearly underscored or terrorism will fall into the legal neverland now occupied by drugs, and our resistance to it will be about as effective. [By] confusing war and crime, we have created a cul-de-sac. [Unless] we are prepared to invent some new institutions and processes quickly, we are headed for a swamp full of more legal and political alligators than we can now imagine."

Hart says that "the nature of conflict is changing, but we haven't developed new military capabilities or legal rules to deal with it." Those currently advocating "widening the war," he writes, "are simply seeking to restore the status quo ante. By trying to make terrorism the creature of nation-states, traditional methods of war and the force structures for them can be sustained. But if, in fact, terrorists are transnational criminals, like drug cartels and mafia, new nontraditional means of combat must be invented and a criminal justice process must be imposed."


In Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper, columnist George Monbiot says that the U.S.-led war on terrorism is beginning to look like a new imperialist war. He notes that the U.S., Iran, and Russia have begun to "tussle over the nation's future, with potentially disastrous consequences for [Afghanistan's] people." Monbiot also remarks that U.S. special interests seem to be benefiting from the new foreign policy, as the "asymmetric" form of the war on terrorism that George W. Bush and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have proposed we are experiencing "provides the justification, long sought by the defense companies and their sponsored representatives in Washington, for a massive increase in arms spending."

Monbiot says energy interests are also moving in. The U.S. is now establishing long-term bases in Central Asia and promising not to "abandon" the region. He writes: "Both Hamid Karzai, the interim [Afghan] president, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy, were formerly employed as consultants to Unocal, the U.S. oil company which spent much of the 1990s seeking to build a pipeline through Afghanistan. [Smaller] companies -- such as Chase Energy and Caspian Energy Consulting -- are now lobbying for its revival." Monbiot concludes by saying that the men who run the military-industrial complex may prove to be a threat "not just to terrorism, but to the world."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this Press Review.)