It was not pretty, but the job was done. Last weekend, Serb police arrested former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic after a 36-hour standoff at his villa. Mr. Milosevic now faces corruption charges, but officials in Belgrade are hinting that more serious charges could be added. Mr. Milosevic should be tried by a Yugoslav court, but the indictment should also include the crimes alleged by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
The Hague tribunal has charged Mr. Milosevic with responsibility for the mass killings and expulsions of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo province in 1999 by Serb forces. International prosecutors are also preparing indictments concerning his role in the bloody conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia. At home, Mr. Milosevic faces allegations of abuse of power and corruption. Mr. Milosevic denied those allegations when he was arrested. In a written statement, he conceded for the first time that the monies he is accused of stealing were used to fund Serb separatists in Bosnia and Croatia.
That admission would seem to provide substance to the charges being prepared in The Hague. But Mr. Milosevic is gambling that his successor, President Vojislav Kostunica, will be reluctant to hand him over. Thus far, Mr. Kostunica has been hesitant to do that. The U.N. tribunal is perceived in Yugoslavia as being anti-Serb. Mr. Kostunica is a reformer, but he is also a nationalist who recognizes that he cannot afford to be seen as bowing to Western demands.
That is why Mr. Kostunica has denied that last weekend’s arrest had anything to do with the March 31 deadline imposed by the United States Congress. Congress conditioned $50 million in aid on U.S. State Department certification that the Belgrade government was cooperating with international efforts to bring war criminals to justice. Secretary of State Colin Powell issued that certification earlier this week, releasing the aid.
Mr. Kostunica’s denials notwithstanding, the arrest does reveal the extent of U.S. influence. Hopefully, that will dampen any inclination that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has for distancing itself from events in the troubled region.
The question is what that influence will be used for. The U.S. and other nations are still pressing Yugoslavia to hand Mr. Milosevic over to The Hague tribunal. Mr. Kostunica maintains that Mr. Milosevic is Yugoslavia’s responsibility. He is right.
The U.N. court is an attempt to fill a vacuum. It is intended to deal with individuals that national legal systems cannot. If Yugoslavia is ready to address the same issues as the international tribunal, then it should. A Yugoslav trial would oblige Serbs to face up to their past. Unlike an international trial, there would be no claims of “victor’s justice;” Mr. Milosevic is unlikely to become a martyr to Serb nationalism.
Nor is a trial likely to split Serbian society. There were no mass protests after Mr. Milosevic’s arrest. His crowd of loyal supporters was no threat to the arresting police; his armed guards were, however. The analogy is apt: People in power might be threatened by Mr. Milosevic’s trial, but the mass of Yugoslav citizens would not. They seem sincere in their desire to move past the Milosevic era; a trial would give them the chance to do just that.
Mr. Milosevic currently faces charges of corruption and criminal conspiracy. Yugoslav officials now say that he could be tried for involvement in more serious crimes. Reportedly, investigators are trying to link Mr. Milosevic to deaths of four people in a 1999 assassination attempt on an opposition leader, the disappearance of a former Serbian president Ivan Stambolic and the slaying of a journalist.
But putting the former president away — even for life — is not enough. A trial has to address the charges and crimes identified by The Hague tribunal — war crimes and crimes against the peace. In addressing those crimes, the international tribunal serves a larger purpose than does a purely domestic court. The precedents and the body of law that it creates will help strengthen the international legal norm against genocide.
We must not lose sight of the big picture. The war crimes tribunal was designed to bring justice to the victims of the Yugoslav wars. The individuals who waged war must be held responsible for their actions; continuing efforts must be made to ensure that all the suspects are brought to justice. Mr. Milosevic must not become a martyr or a scapegoat. His arrest is only the beginning of a process, the first step in a long journey. The Yugoslav government is to be commended for its action, encouraged to continue, and prodded when it fails to do so.
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