Tribunal Garners Hard-Won Respect


When former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was spirited out of Belgrade by U.N. authorities last week, he reportedly displayed the same unmasked contempt for the international war crimes tribunal that he has since it was created eight years ago.

"The Hague tribunal is no court, it's a political circus set up to destroy the Serbian nation completely," the Belgrade weekly Nedeljni Telegraf's latest edition quotes Milosevic as saying before he was hustled off for what is sure to be a long stay here.

The difference this time, though, was that not many of his once-loyal fellow citizens were listening.

With the arrest of its most wanted war crimes suspect, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has gained new clout and respect, even in that suspect's homeland.

But the rise in esteem for the U.N. judicial body--widely seen at the time of its inception as a fig leaf to cover Western democracies' failure to stop the killing and "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia-Herzegovina--has been gradual.

The tribunal that early on was regarded with as much skepticism by Western powers as by Balkan dictators has gained credibility with each hard-won detention of 49 suspects and with a gathering pace of trials now so numerous that 27 part-time judges have had to be brought in from all over the world.

War Crimes Court Has Set Precedents

The first international war crimes court since Nuremberg and the military panel that tried Japanese leaders after World War II, the Hague tribunal has also established some important legal precedents along the way to its 20 convictions. It has meted out the first judgments condemning wartime sexual enslavement and upheld the application of Geneva Convention rules to civil wars as well as international conflicts.

In addition, Milosevic's delivery to the tribunal by authorities of his own country portends improvement in what has so far been a hostile relationship between war crimes prosecutors here and the governments of countries sheltering suspects. Milosevic is only the eighth suspect in tribunal custody surrendered by national police, compared with 14 voluntary surrenders and 20 arrests by international forces, primarily peacekeepers in Bosnia.

Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus hinted Friday at an international donors conference in Brussels that Milosevic was just the first suspect that his country will relinquish.

"Be patient," he advised Western officials seeking to help rebuild Yugoslavia.

Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte also presented the long-awaited arrival of Milosevic here as the start of a new era.

"The transfer of Slobodan Milosevic marks the real beginning of cooperation by Yugoslavia," said Del Ponte, who has tirelessly lobbied for more aggressive measures to detain war crimes suspects since she took on her duties nearly two years ago.

Del Ponte has also urged North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces patrolling Bosnia and other Balkan areas where indicted suspects are believed to be hiding to make greater efforts, even if risks are involved, to arrest 26 suspects still at large. The 54-year-old Swiss lawyer and her staff have often expressed dismay that despite more than 20,000 peacekeeping troops remaining in Bosnia, wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic have been able to evade capture for nearly six years.

With the hand-over of Milosevic signaling a further weakening of nationalists' grip on power in the region, national military and police forces there may now be more inclined to invoke outstanding arrest warrants as a prudent demonstration of their loyalty to the reformers now running their countries. For many ordinary Serbs, Croats and Muslims, the arrest and prosecution of the instigators of their suffering is a welcome move toward restoring normal social relations.

"The transfer of Milosevic is a turning point that will lend renewed energy to the task of arresting those fugitives that are still at liberty," Del Ponte predicted after her most coveted quarry was ensconced in the tribunal's detention unit at Scheveningen Prison.

Yet despite the boosts to the tribunal's moral and actual authority in the last few years, success in bringing Milosevic to justice is far from ensured. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made that observation after the high-profile extradition, noting the complex task of gathering evidence of crimes committed at a time when outside investigators had few impartial witnesses and little access.

Prosecutor's Pursuit of 'Big Fish'

In fact, the tribunal has lost a few cases it had hoped would break new ground in international criminal justice. It failed in 1998 to establish "command responsibility" for crimes committed by forces under a suspect's authority--a concept likely to be tested again with Milosevic, who is not known to have pulled a trigger or threatened victims in person.

But Del Ponte has made going after the "big fish" her mission. She will mount a strong and incontrovertible case, her associates say, that much of the suffering and misery that has reigned in the Balkans this past decade was masterminded by Milosevic, even if he managed to keep the dirty work at arm's length.

"You've got the wrong man," Milosevic told tribunal escorts as they led him out of his Belgrade prison, according to Nedeljni Telegraf, which was obviously present as its special 16-page issue is replete with photos.

The surrendered war crimes suspect added, with apparent sarcasm, "Congratulations on a job well done," the magazine reported--a sentiment now shared by more of the world than Milosevic ever imagined.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World