VIEWPOINT: Too Little, Too Late

What can reasonably be hoped for is that Milosevic's trial affords some consolation to those who suffered so horribly at his hands.

VIEWPOINT: Too Little, Too Late

What can reasonably be hoped for is that Milosevic's trial affords some consolation to those who suffered so horribly at his hands.

Saturday, 30 June, 2001

If life were a movie, the Belgrade authorities' reluctant decision to turn Slobodan Milosevic over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia would represent an unexpectedly happy, redeeming ending to the Balkans tragedy, with justice finally winning out over evil. This consoling fiction, putting aside the fears of at least some tribunal staff that Milosevic will be quite difficult to convict, is the way the trial will be played out in the media and the activist community.

The New York Times hailed the move as "an affirmation of the importance of international justice", and a subsequent opinion column, quoting a former British commander in Bosnia, declared, "Hallelujah". Human Rights Watch announced on its website that Milosevic's transfer to The Hague is "a great triumph for the victims of war crimes . . . and will help solidify the emerging system of international justice".

Such comments perfectly express the mood of triumphalism and self-regarding wishful-thinking currently dominant in well-intentioned Western circles. The transfer comes so late, the process so compromised, and the much acclaimed system of international justice, purportedly so advanced by the Milosevic hand-over, so rotten with internal contradictions, that it is difficult to be ecstatic about one single case, no matter how important in the Balkan context.

This is not to suggest for an instant that Milosevic should not have been bound over for trial by an international court. It is obviously better that Milosevic is under lock and key in a UN jail than at liberty. (For the past several months, he has been detained in Belgrade's Central Prison. But if the Belgrade authorities' charges against him fell through, as appeared likely, he would have had to be released by autumn.) A modest celebration is certainly in order, and the activists who worked long and hard for this day are right to feel vindicated and deserving of congratulations. But "a great triumph"? "The emerging system of international justice"? Even in an age of media-hype, this is going too far.

In fact, Milosevic's arrest was largely a commercial transaction between the Yugoslav authorities and the countries being asked to contribute funds to get the country through next winter. It is unlikely to set any great precedents, outside the direct reverberations that will be felt in the Balkans. International lawyers will say that the Milosevic transfer sets a new and better norm, strengthens the nascent International Criminal Court, etc.. But the reality is that this norm - no matter how broad the consensus over its general applicability that now exists in the minds of international lawyers and the hearts of human rights activists - is highly unlikely to achieve wide, let alone consistent practical application.

As in so many other areas, the Balkans is and remains a special case - special in the outrage it has engendered, special in the means, however insufficient they may rightly seem to activists dedicated to the redress of the wrongs committed there. And while we are talking about justice, real justice, that is, it must be said that, after all he has done, the trial Milosevic is about to receive is certainly too good for him, just as the Nuremberg process was too good for the Goerings and the Speers whom Winston Churchill suggested, at the time, be rounded up and summarily executed.

One thing is certain: With the death penalty ruled out by the statute of the tribunal, whatever sentence Milosevic receives will be far less than he deserves. In any case, if past practice is anything to go by, the tribunal in general has handed down light sentences. A great step forward for humanity might consist of arresting a tyrant like Milosevic after he had committed a few indictable offenses - not after he had been allowed to murder and loot as he pleased for more than a decade, ruining a whole region and countless lives in the process.

A great step forward might consist of arresting Milosevic before he had become so unpopular in his own country. Despite the token demonstrations that have taken place in Belgrade over the past few days, his move from domestic custody to international detention was not all that controversial. Surely, the "emerging system of international justice" Human Rights Watch so self-servingly believes itself to be shepherding into being will only be worth taking seriously when it is a Putin or a Jiang Zemin

and not a Milosevic or a Foday Sankoh who is in the dock. Real justice requires difficult steps, in a timely manner, to forestall further atrocities; it does not simply act after the fact against thugs from unimportant or relatively weak countries to assuage the guilt of well-intended people in the rich world about particularly fetishized instances of horror.

Until that happens, Human Rights Watch's contention that now "no leader accused of crimes against humanity is beyond the reach of international justice" is little more than hot air and it will remain an open question whether the Milosevic indictment represents the triumph of any other human rights standard except the double standard. And so, unless and until that moment comes, let us be rather measured and circumspect in our celebrations and cautious in our estimates of what has really been accomplished. Serbian and Western officials were remarkably open about the linkage between Milosevic's arrival in The Hague and the donors' conference's release of aid monies to the former Yugoslavia.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with such a quid pro quo. If NATO countries are going to treat the southern Balkans like a protectorate for the foreseeable future, then, by all means, let pride of place be given to justice and human rights in such an imperial venture. Indeed, the real success of the tribunal has been to shame the Western powers in affording such a role to human rights as they re-impose themselves in south-eastern Europe. But it would be self-deceiving to imagine that human rights has come first and NATO's imposition of its own authority and its own standards in the region second in this process. That really only does happen in the movies.

The reality is that the NATO powers - far too late and after Milosevic was allowed to commit far too many crimes with impunity - came to view the former president as a rebel against European order who had to be suppressed, and like countless outlaws before him believed he had to be brought to the dock. That has now happened. The fascist revolt that Milosevic fomented and led is now over and he is in his cell as the prosecutors scurry to pile indictment upon indictment. Is such an outcome to be applauded? Yes. But a little proportion, please.

What can reasonably be hoped for is that Milosevic's trial affords some consolation to those who suffered so horribly at his hands - sometimes, more horribly still, seemingly at his whim - and constitutes some posthumous memorial to his victims. But let us not congratulate ourselves unduly on the victory of justice so long delayed. Nor let us indulge ourselves in the psychobabble of "closure" for the victims that was invoked so often to justify the execution of Timothy McVeigh in the United States.

One never recovers from the loss of a child, or a parent, or a sibling, or a friend. The most that happens in any trial is that those concerned get the fleeting sense that the world is not wholly unjust. That, in itself, may be no small accomplishment. But if it is a victory, it is one that, after Vukovar and Omarska, Sarajevo and Srebrenica, Drenica and Racak, is hard to take much pleasure in.

David Rieff is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York and author of Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West and the co-editor (with Roy Gutman) of War Crimes: What the Public Should Know.

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