Carla Del Ponte, the U.N. International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor of the late and former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, has admitted that "the death of Milosevic represents for me a total defeat."
Indeed, the former Serbian strongman's death in a Dutch cell on March 11 — before he was found guilty on any of 66 charges for such crimes as torture, murder and genocide — represents a failure of international justice.
Consider Slobo's many small personal victories during his trial in The Hague: He managed to prolong the trial that was supposed to last 14 months. By insisting on representing himself and taking advantage of his poor health, Milosevic dragged deliberations on for four years. He died from natural causes in his cell bed.
During the trial, Serbian voters elected the Butcher of Bosnia to parliament. The trial, televised in his homeland, allowed Milosevic to portray himself as a Serb David against an international judicial Goliath that burned through some $140 million per year, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Serbian government said there would be no state funeral for Milosevic when he died. Yet more than 50,000 mourners turned out for the very public ceremony last Saturday amid much fanfare.
The Serbian government agreed to suspend an arrest warrant for Milosevic's widow, Mirjana Markovic, who lives in exile in Moscow, if she attended the funeral. She chose not to — but the government's concession has to help her cause.
Some Serbian supporters are convinced that his jailers poisoned Milosevic, 64, who suffered for years from heart problems and high blood pressure. No doubt Del Ponte's speculation that Milosevic may have "chosen death over a conviction," as she told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, fans Serbian suspicions. Thus a martyr could be born.
To be sure, Del Ponte and the United Nations meant well. They believed that Serbia and the world would be better off if the — all bow — international community prosecuted war criminals. But good intentions don't necessarily result in justice for the victims. In fact, many observers wonder if Milosevic's death — amid rumors he was poisoned — will further fragment a region desperately in need of reconciliation.
As Del Ponte contemplates her "total failure," justice seekers in The Hague should reconsider how they do business.
In holding the trial in the Dutch capital, the United Nations reinforced the suspicion in Belgrade that outsiders were imposing their sense of justice on Serbians — and only on atrocities committed by Serbians, not on atrocities committed against Serbians.
The decision to prosecute Milosevic for genocide turned the death of 200,000 murder victims into a political statistic, and robbed the crimes of the personal loss and pain inflicted. It also moved the court's focus from the violence inflicted upon innocent people to the question of what Milosevic was thinking and what he knew. The United Nations ought to consider eliminating the genocide charge altogether, and instead charge war criminals for what they did — murder, torture — not why they did it.
The United Nations' refusal to seek the death penalty sapped the proceedings of any drama or consequence — Milosevic knew that the worst that could happen to him is that he would spend the rest of his life behind bars. It was also a good bet that he would not receive less than a life sentence — and, even if he did, the ailing Milosevic wasn't likely to outlive a lesser sentence.
Because Milosevic pretty much knew his punishment before the trial began, he had nothing to lose in stalling the trial and using his platform to tweak the Western powers that helped to oust him, as well as witnesses who testified against him.
The tribunal sentenced other war criminals in the Yugoslavian arena so that minions with lesser responsibility would serve lesser sentences than their commanding officers. That's insane. Ordering the deaths of 7,000 civilians should not result in a lesser sentence than ordering the deaths of 8,000 people.
Those crimes are so evil that the men who committed them should never walk out of prison.
How could The Hague judges not understand that?