ANALYSIS: Belgrade's Tribunal Volte-Face

Serbia takes a dramatic step to secure the export of its most valuable commodity, Slobodan Milosevic.

ANALYSIS: Belgrade's Tribunal Volte-Face

Serbia takes a dramatic step to secure the export of its most valuable commodity, Slobodan Milosevic.

Saturday, 23 June, 2001

The Yugoslav government's adoption of a decree on cooperation with the international war crimes tribunal on June 23,ensures that the country's former president, Slobodan Milosevic, will shortly be taking a one-way trip to The Hague.

Any lingering doubts that Belgrade intends to fulfil its international obligations towards the tribunal - and there were many when the new government first took office - have now been quashed. Yugoslavia, and especially Serbia, has resolutely demontrated that it will no longer be held hostage by Milosevic and other suspected war criminals.

In the months immediately after coming to office in October 2000, the new authorities, and especially Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, were keen to stress they had "more urgent priorities" to attend to than establishing cooperation with a "politicised, biased and anti-Serbian court". Then attention switched to prosecuting Milosevic at home on charges of financial and electoral fraud, political killings and even, if pushed, war crimes.

Next, the government announced plans to introduce a federal law on cooperation with the tribunal, which would allow for the transfer of Yugoslav citizens to The Hague. But as such legislation was not legally necessary to comply with a UN body of which Yugoslavia is a member, concerns remains that this could be just another delaying tactic.

In the event, the proposed legislation fell foul of political haggling within the coalition government. The Montenegrin coalition partners of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS - the former Milosevic allies the Socialist Peoples Party, SNP - strongly opposed the move. According to "malicious rumours" some individuals on the SNP main board "made their names" during the joint operation by the Yugoslav Peoples Army and Montenegrin Territorial Defence against Dubrovnik in 1991, and may themselves be subject to sealed Hague indictments.

Back in February 2001 tribunal Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte warned European Union representatives that the law on cooperation "would not be passed and that the new authorities would blame the FRY [Federal Republic of Yugoslav] parliament for preventing cooperation with the ICTY", the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia." (See Tribunal Update No. 213)

The draft legislation never even made it as far as parliament. Having failed to break the resistance of their Montenegrin partners, DOS withdrew the law and federal ministers instead adopted a decree to the same effect with record speed. The move risks causing a crisis within the federal government and possibly heralds the demise of the union between Serbia and Montenegro.

But how to explain Belgrade's dramatic volte-face?

The decisive stand taken by the tribunal has been critical. Aside from a few wobbles in April 2000 when Milosevic was first arrested, The Hague court has insisted that Belgrade must cooperate fully and extradite the former president and other war crimes suspects "without undue delay" as stipulated by Article 29 of the ICTY statute.

When Milosevic was arrested on April 1, some tribunal officials hinted at the possibility of a trial in Serbia before a Hague hearing or mooted the idea of holding part of the tribunal trial in Belgrade. But Del Ponte and tribunal president Judge Claude Jorda soon put such musing to rest by presenting a firm, joint position that Milosevic had to be handed over "with all due diligence" as an "absolute binding obligation" of all states, including Yugoslavia. (See Tribunal Update No. 216).

The tribunal's uncompromising position left Western governments little room for manoeuvre. Despite concerns that an insistence on the swift transfer of Milosevic could destabilise Serbia's young democracy, most Western governments accepted leniency towards Belgrade was not an option. Such a strategy would immediately call into question the more hard line approach taken towards Zagreb and Sarajevo, and jeopardise those countries' continued cooperation.

Washington took the toughest line making clear to Belgrade that United States participation in the international aid donors' conference for the FRY depended on Yugoslav cooperation with The Hague. The donors' conference was initially scheduled for May, but was postponed at Washington's behest until the end of June.

The European Union did not lay down conditions for participation, but made clear that governments would only offer "pledges" at the conference. Before money actually starts to flow into Yugoslavia, Belgrade needs to meet the EU's "conditionality policy", which applies to all former Yugoslavia countries, and which gives high priority to full cooperation with The Hague tribunal.

The speed with which the decree was adopted on Saturday suggests Belgrade got the message.

Without the estimated $1 billion of donors' aid, the Serbian economy looks set to collapse by the winter, if not before. The new government would go down with it. It is noted with some irony in Belgrade these days that Milosevic is now "Serbia's most valuable export commodity".

One other important factor behind Belgrade's change of heart on the tribunal issue was the discovery of mass graves near Belgrade and in eastern Serbia containing victims from the Kosovo conflict. According to data published so far, the remains of an estimated 1,000 people have been uncovered.

The discoveries shocked the Serbian public and demonstrated that claims of crimes in Kosovo and subsequent efforts to remove their traces were not "NATO propaganda" or "fabrications of the politicised and anti-Serb court in The Hague".

It appears the timing of the macabre discoveries was not accidental. It is probable that when the Belgrade authorities realised they could not wriggle out of their responsibilities towards the tribunal they decided to make public information previously designated a "state secret" in order to prepare the nation for the transfer to The Hague of those accused of war crimes in Kosovo and elsewhere.

Some western commentators have noted the irony that it was the Serbian interior ministry - the same institution responsible for so many atrocities in Kosovo - which uncovered the mass graves and revealed details of a refigerated lorry containing Kosovo victims that had been dumped in the Danube.

But the "discoveries" were already almost two years old . Hague investigators found empty graves and evidence of a cover-up operation when they arrived in Kosovo hot on the heels of NATO troops in the summer of 1999. The Serbian public, however, were kept in the dark or discarded such information as "anti-Serb propaganda", and the new Serbian authorities made no effort in its first months to confirm such reports or reveal other information about atrocities in its possession. On the contrary, the new authorities kept the same anti-tribunal line as the previous regime for some time.

Now, however, the Serbian people are facing up to some unpleasant truths delivered by Serb police officers and Serb eyewitnesses. Some of those witnesses, it has now emerged, made formal statements to tribunal prosecutors long before they began to speak publicly in Serbia.

Despite Belgrade's new decree, The Hague has not relaxed its position. Tribunal officials concede only that the Yugoslav authorities have taken "a step towards beginning cooperation".

Prosecution spokeswoman Florence Hartmann told Tribunal Update on Sunday, "Cooperation does not consist of laws, decrees and statements but concrete steps in fulfilling court requests, beginning with the fulfilling of arrest warrants and the transfer of the accused to The Hague and enabling investigations and free access to archives, documents and witnesses."

Reservations aside, Deputy Prosecutor Graham Blewitt said he was nevertheless "excited" at the prospect of having Milosevic in The Hague.

"That's what ICTY was established for - to bring to justice the architects of horrible crimes committed in former Yugoslavia in the past decade," he said.

Blewitt said the moment the former Yugoslav leader appears at The Hague will be a "time for the world to celebrate". He added that the prosecution is prepared to try Milosevic "without delay for the crimes on the Kosovo indictment", and that the indictments against him for crimes in Croatia and Bosnia will probably be ready in several months.

In addition to Milosevic, Yugoslav deputy prime minister Miroljub Labus said a further 15 FRY citizens, identified in public and sealed indictments, would be sent to The Hague in a reasonable period of time.

The 16 indictees include the so-called "Kosovo Five" (Milosevic, Serbian president Milan Milutinovic, former Serbian deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic, former Yugoslav army chief of staff General Dragoljub Ojdanic and former Serbian interior minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic) and the "Vukovar Three" (one-time Yugoslav Peoples Army officers Colonel Mile Mrksic, Major Veselin Sljivancanin and Captain Miroslav Radic).

There is also the "Dubrovnik group", whose names are sealed but are known to the Yugoslav authorities, as well as four individuals accused of crimes in Bosnia and Croatia. One of the latter is Milan Martic, former president of the self-styled Republic of Serb Krajina, who is accused of shelling Zagreb and is thought to have obtained Yugoslav citizenship and sought refuge in the FRY.

Tribunal spokesman Jim Landale said preparations at the United Nations detention unit "to accommodate everyone" were under way and that "as many cells as are necessary" would be available.

In a timely improvement to the tribunal the UN General Assembly recently appointed 27-ad litem or stand-by judges. The first contingent of 6 judges is due to begin work this summer and will allow the tribunal to hear a larger number of trials simultaneously.

The Office of the Prosecutor is also working on enhancing its investigative and court capacities. The prosecution's budget for the next year envisages extra money for additional staff to prevent investigations becoming too protracted and to avoid leaving defendants languishing in jail for months on end before the start of their trials.

Hartmann pointed out that securing additional funds to accommodate these increased costs "is an obligation of the international community both towards the victims, and towards the accused who have the right to be tried without an unnecessary delay".

The prosecution plans to complete 36 investigations against the approximately 150 suspects by the end of 2004.

The most eagerly awaited single day in the tribunal's brief history, the first appearance of Milosevic, is expected to take place shortly after his arrival in The Hague, which could come any time within the next three weeks.

Mirko Klarin is IWPR senior editor for the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief of the SENSE News Agency.

Support our journalists