Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Lessons of Arkan's death - War crimes suspects are only safe in the Hague
no longer feel safe there and are trying to arrange a secret "escape to The
This question was raised in Tribunal Update No. 134 (July 1999) following a
report on the United States (US) Internet-TV network MSNBC concerning a
sensational, though unsubstantiated, story that Arkan was allegedly trying
to reach a deal with the Tribunal and/or the Belgian authorities.
Six months and 25 Updates later, with the killing of Arkan in Belgrade on
Saturday, the question has gained greater currency.
In the Tribunal Update 134 story, "Arkan's Mystery", a famous Belgian
lawyer, Pierre Chome, confirmed to IWPR that, on the initiative of a person
with "good contacts in Balkan nationalist circles", he had made "informal
and confidential contact" with Belgian state prosecutor, Benoit Dejemeppe..
The purpose of that "contact" was to establish the "national and
international (legal) status" of his potential client"--Arkan
"If this is really the initiative of Mr. Raznatovic," Chome went on
cautiously, "he was only interested what would be the conditions of his
detention and his personal security - in case he handed himself over to the
Chome also said he understood from his "Balkan contact" that Arkan was
fearful someone might try to kill him if he were to surrender to The Hague
Pierre Chome, who has a reputation as a first-class criminal lawyer,
believed that information relating to his informal and confidential contact
had been leaked by the prosecutors' office. He said this "makes him very
angry," and that such a "disclosure" is not only "incorrect and stupid, but
also very dangerous" for his potential client. The January 15 shooting
indicates Chome's concern for his potential client was well founded.
Regardless of who fired the three bullets into Arkan'S head on Saturday
afternoon, his violent death offers several lessons to all those accused of
war crimes - irrespective of their present political, social or financial
status. The clearest lesson is that only the Tribunal, and no one else,that
can guarantee physical safety, dignified treatment and a fair trial.
All other strategies - fleeing, hiding, surrounding oneself with bodyguards
, are, for a number of reasons, very risky.
Firstly, Hague Tribunal indictments have a series of definite consequences
for the persons against whom they were issued. The "expiry date" is not
limited. The indictments remain active from the date of issue to eternity,
as there is no statute of limitation for war crimes.
Jurisdiction for prosecution under an indictment is also unlimited: a
suspect can be tried in any country in the world, even after the Hague
Tribunal itself ceases to be active. As one commentator on the Pinochet case
remarked, "crimes against humanity...can be tried everywhere where there is
Thus those accused in a Hague indictment become fugitives from international
justice. As soon as they leave the country providing refuge a suspect risks
being arrested by any local police officer. And within the country providing
refuge--and Serbia is one such place--the accused is often hostage to the
However stable a regime may appear at any given moment, the political
situation is always open to change. Hence those who are today in a position
to offer safe haven could tomorrow lose power and find themselves in the
dock at The Hague.
And a regime's political interests are also conducive to change: it could
occur to today's protectors that it is politically more profitable to turn
"outlaws" over to international justice. This is of course out of the
question in Serbia as long as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who is
himself indicted for war crimes, remains in charge.
Given such a situation, however, it is more likely that the regime, or some
of its parts, might be tempted to themselves silence or remove any accused
"who know to much" and thus rid themselves of embarrassing witnesses to
their own involvement in crimes.
Fugitives from international justice do not only face danger from the
fluidity of a political situation or from the changing interests of a regime
currently offering protection. The longer they remain outside the reach of
international justice the more they expose themselves to the risk of other
All in all, international justice at The Hague compares favourably with the
"justice" meted out to Arkan, to the treachery of the four men who handed
over Todorovic for a bag of hard currency and to the fate of Sima Drljaca
and Dragan Gagovic, killed resisting arrest by SFOR troops. The Hague
Tribunal offers a comfortable detention unit, polite guards in blue UN
uniforms, civilised investigators and intelligent judges who are often
accused of being "obsessed" with protecting the rights of the defendants.
The violent death of the seemingly "untouchable" Arkan could therefore be
interpreted as a final warning to other suspects that it is in their own
best interests to hand themselves over to The Hague as quickly and as
quietly as possible.
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