Accessibility links

Breaking News

World: Analysis from Washington -- War Crimes And The Limits Of Responsibility

Washington, 3 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The extradition of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the UN International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague has raised the question as to whether he was uniquely responsible for all the crimes against humanity committed in Yugoslavia.

Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" raised precisely that question in its Saturday edition when one of its writers asked "Is Milosevic the only person to blame for all Yugoslavian crimes?" Like most observers, Aleksandr Kuranov, the author of the article, does not express any doubt that Milosevic is in fact guilty of many of the crimes with which he is being charged by the international tribunal.

But Kuranov raises the larger issue of responsibility. Clearly, Milosevic did not act alone. Others, like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, have already been charged, but unlike Milosevic they have not been arrested -- even though, as Kuranov puts it, "everyone in the Balkans is aware of their location and current activities."

These three men certainly do not exhaust the list of those who engaged in actions that may qualify as war crimes, Kuranov suggests. But in doing so, he implicitly raises three larger issues: How can Serbian society cleanse itself of the crimes of its former leaders? What role can outside governments play in this process? And can Milosevic be used as a scapegoat onto whom all the sins of the recent past can be displaced?

Few countries not defeated in a war have found it easy to deal with crimes committed by since-vanquished regimes. Chile continues to wrestle with what to do with former President Augusto Pinochet, for example. And now Yugoslavia is wrestling with how to deal with crimes committed under Milosevic.

Belgrade's task is especially difficult. On the one hand, the number of people involved in these crimes is sufficiently large that any thorough housecleaning could destabilize the country -- even though a failure to punish those responsible could lead to a continuing shadow over Yugoslavia's development.

On the other hand, the West's involvement in the Milosevic matter -- and its suggestion that it will provide extensive aid to Belgrade once Milosevic is before the court -- produces its own difficulties. Not only did the West effectively undermine internationally recognized legal procedures in the name of bringing a war criminal to justice, but the entire case risks making Milosevic a martyr and a hero in the eyes of some Serbs, at least.

Many commentators are already noting the inherent inequities in efforts to charge officials with crimes against humanity and to bring them to trial, as well as the ways in which this process will almost inevitably be politicized. Leaders of small and weak countries will be far more likely to be brought to justice than leaders of larger or more powerful ones.

Despite these problems, bringing Milosevic to justice does represent a major step forward in the international effort to hold leaders accountable for their actions, especially when they violate civil and human rights as flagrantly as he did. And using him as a scapegoat may in fact be the lesser of two evils.

Indeed, the term "scapegoat" may provide the key both to understanding what is taking place in this case and to ensuring that the trial of Milosevic will have the consequences its advocates hope for. Historically, a scapegoat was any animal upon which the sins of the community were transferred prior to its sacrificial offering to the divine.

The idea of a scapegoat thus implies the requirement that the community itself must recognize its own mistakes and crimes, even as punishment is meted out to only one of its members in a symbolic sense. If Yugoslavia and the world can view the upcoming trial of Milosevic in these terms, then that trial will help to heal the wounds of the past precisely by forcing all involved to face up to them.

But that will only happen when everyone involved accepts responsibility -- rather than assuming that only one man, in this case Milosevic, is to blame.