Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tribunal Flexes Muscles Over Milosevic

The Hague is demanding the extradition of the former Yugoslav president
By IWPR

For the first three days after the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, The Hague tribunal initially gave the impression that it was in no great hurry to see the former president transferred to The Netherlands.


Tribunal officials told reporters that they wanted to see Milosevic in the war crimes court by the end of the year and would be ready to wait for a "few months" for his arrival, provided that Yugoslavia committed itself to handing over the former president.


Even the chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, said in an interview that it "would not suit her for Milosevic to be in The Hague tomorrow".


She said she had other pressing business and has yet to complete an expanded indictment charging the former Serbian leader with crimes committed in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.


Then on Wednesday, 11 April, the tribunal changed its tune, adopting a much tougher line. The court's president and chief prosecutor called on the Belgrade authorities to transfer Milosevic to The Hague "with all due diligence" because it is their "absolute binding obligation".


An adviser to the chief prosecutor, Jean Jacques Joris, said the call did not represent a "turnabout" but was merely aimed at"specifying the position" of the tribunal. Joris told reporters that the court needed to make its views clear given the "changed circumstances" after Milosevic's arrest in Belgrade.


The new "circumstances" are indeed dramatically different. A humiliated Milosevic is in prison, the new authorities in Belgrade remain firmly in power and the arrest sparked no upheaval or uprising. Joris said that there was no apparent reason to postpone Milosevic's extradition to The Hague.


Another compelling reason that could have encouraged the tribunal to toughen its stance was the reaction of world capitals to Milosevic's


arrest.


With the exception of Moscow, every foreign government stressed that the detention of Milosevic in Belgrade's central prison was only "the first step on his way to The Hague".


The tribunal's tough message is intended to prod the international community into acting on its rhetoric, keeping up political and economic pressure on Belgrade to transfer Milosevic.


It was a US deadline threatening the withdrawal of valuable financial aid that forced Belgrade authorities to move against Milosevic. The tribunal may be anxious to pre-empt Western complacency now that Milosevic is behind bars.


The tribunal also wanted to make clear that Milosevic would receive no special treatment or privileges. Wishing to avoid risky precedents that could be exploited by other suspects or states, the court's public statements underlined that Slobodan Milosevic is no different from any other Hague indictee.


"International law must be applied, and this goes for Milosevic as for anyone else accused by this tribunal," Tribunal president Judge Claude Jorda told IWPR.


"This is a fundamental legal norm, recorded in our statute. Every state that arrests some of the persons on the list of the accused must surrender that person to the tribunal, 'with all due diligence'.That is a law for all states and all accused, and that is a law for Mr. Milosevic as well."


The prosecutor's office also struck a much more severe tone over the question of Yugoslavia's law on cooperation with The Hague. Previously, the prosecutor's office - while describing the law as unnecessary - had "noted" Belgrade's desire to adopt such a law and expressed readiness to wait for its passage. But last week, there were no patient words on offer.


"With the law, or without it, Belgrade has a legally binding obligation to extradite Milosevic and others accused by the Tribunal," Joris told IWPR.


"The fact that the law on cooperation has not been adopted yet cannot be regarded as an obstacle or used as an excuse not to cooperate.


"Because cooperation is an international obligation that cannot be avoided by referring to internal obstacles or 'imperfections' of the domestic laws. Nor can that obligation be avoided by referring to the current criminal proceedings against Milosevic before the domestic judiciary."


Saying there is no room for negotiation, the tribunal has evidently decided to play strictly "by the book." And "the book" in this case - the tribunal's statute - leaves no breathing space for Yugoslav authorities. Instead of bargaining, The Hague has merely "reminded" the authorities in Belgrade of their obligations towards the international court.


"All indicted persons arrested by a UN member state must be promptly transferred to the tribunal," the court said in a statement. "This obligation, binding on all member states, arises fromthe Charter of the United Nations and Article 29 of the Statute of the Tribunal... and prevails over any legal impediment that may be invoked by a state..."


The only issue at stake was when and how the Belgrade authorities would fulfill their obligation to transfer Milosevic to The Hague, the Tribunal stated.


The tribunal's registrar, Hans Holthuis, was despatched to Belgrade to drive home the binding terms of the tribunal's statute.


For the moment, the new authorities in Belgrade do not appear impressed by the tribunal's remarks.


But The Hague's tough line last week seemed to be aimed more at world capitals than Yugoslavia's Belgrade, as the Milosevic's extradition will depend less on Belgrade than the political will of the international community.


It was direct, explicit international pressure that forced Belgrade to arrest Milosevic. More such political and economic pressure will be required to persuade it to send him to The Hague.