Justice for the Balkans

The trial of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic for crimes against humanity lends hope that justice may finally be served in one of the greatest tragedies of the last decade. Milosevic is accused of directing ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia on a scale not seen in Europe since the Holocaust. His trial is an important and unprecedented step towards holding heads of state accountable for atrocities committed under their leadership.

The International War Crimes Tribunal, established by the U.N. in 1993, has never seen a case of this magnitude. The tribunal has accused Milosevic of primary responsibility for the deaths of 200,000 people in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo during wars in the 1990s. Milosevic has declared his intention to call officials from the highest levels of international politics to testify, including former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

With so much at stake, the trial will receive the highest level of international scrutiny, and it may determine whether or not cases against world leaders are brought before international courts in the future.

International courts like the tribunal are essential because they offer the only means to separate justice from each nation’s particular self-interest. Because participation in these courts requires nations to surrender a measure of their fiercely guarded autonomy, they will agree to do so only if they have complete confidence in the integrity of the court’s proceedings. The Milosevic trial will stand as a case study on the efficacy of international courts; the judges must guard its integrity with vigor, and the U.S. and other countries should lend the court their full support in word and deed.

Of course, Milosevic should receive the full rights and protections guaranteed by the tribunal to all defendants. But at the same time, the tribunal must curb Milosevic’s attempts to undermine its authority by hijacking the proceedings. Acting as his own attorney, Milosevic has seized the opportunity to transform the courtroom into a political pulpit from which to assail the foreign policy of the U.S. and the West. He continues to refer to the chief judge Richard May as “Mr. May” rather than “Your Honor.” The respectability of the court demands that Milosevic be kept on a tight leash—that he be subject to the rules of the court rather than subjecting the court to rules of his own.

Nevertheless, the tribunal’s efforts at respectability will be of little consequence if the U.S. does not submit to its requests. If the U.S. respects the court’s orders—for example, by cooperating with its subpoenas—then other nations will not obliged to do the same. Clinton has not yet been subpoenaed, and the judges could decide that Clinton’s testimony is not relevant to the case. But that decision should be left to the court. If called to testify, Clinton should do so without hesitation.

Although Milosevic would surely hurl some ferocious accusations at the former president—he has already condemned the Clinton administration for “genocide” against Serbs—Clinton’s testimony would only help America’s reputation abroad. By confronting and refuting Milosevic’s claims, Clinton would provide the world with his side of the argument. The trial reaches the eyes and ears of thousands of Bosnians, Croats and Serbs through local television broadcasts, and it would certainly smooth relations with them if Clinton were to testify to America’s respect and concern for them.

The success of this tribunal in delivering a respected and just decision would be a decisive step in strengthening the place of impartial international courts in world politics. Those courts are essential to hold world leaders personally accountable for atrocities they permit. Leaders must know that they cannot act with impunity simply because they lead a state; they must know that tragedies like those in the former Yugoslavia have criminal repercussions that reach all the way to the top.