Why Milosevic should be tried in Serbia

If there was ever any doubt about it, we can now quantify, with great precision, just how much the leaders of the West are willing to pay in order to take revenge on Slobodan Milosevic. The answer is precisely $1.3 billion : the amount of aid money which was promised to the Serbian government, in exchange for handing him over. And revenge they shall have: in the dark hours of last Friday morning, the Yugoslav government, desperate for the world’s rich countries not to cancel a scheduled donors’ conference, spirited Milosevic off to The Hague where he now awaits trial by the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal.

From a certain point of view, it isn’t hard to see why Western statesmen want Milosevic’s head so badly. Certainly he will go down in history as the man who brought concentration camps, mass graves, and ethnic warfare back to Europe. Certainly he caused a lot of Western politicians a lot of sleepless nights: not only did he thumb his nose at the institutions of the West and the international community – at Nato, at the OSCE, at the United Nations – he fought in Kosovo far longer than anyone believed he would fight, briefly creating the nightmarish possibility that Yugoslavia would become Western Europe’s Vietnam.

Nevertheless, aside from the fact that it will satisfy the vengeful desires of Messrs Blair, Clinton, Schroeder, et al – and conform, perhaps, to a very abstract notion of justice, it is hard to see what is going to be achieved by this somewhat strange financial transaction, and by the even stranger trial that will now follow. It comes too late to help Milosevic’s victims. Nor will the trial help the still fragile, and genuinely pro-Western, democrats who rule Serbia today: the extradition has already triggered a crisis in the ruling coalition. Nor ought we to be so certain that we are going to come out of it smelling so sweetly either, if – as his lawyers are threatening – Milosevic begins revealing which Western leaders promised him what.

More importantly, however, the extradition also brought crowds of Milosevic’s supporters out on the streets, a small reminder of the fact that, through much of his reign, Milosevic enjoyed high levels of public support. The wars he conducted were popular, at least to start with. The ethnic cleansing was admired. Indeed, if Milosevic were to be tried in Serbia, by Serbs, on Serbian television – with Bosnian and Albanian witnesses – it might have forced more Serbs to confront their own critical role in his rise and fall. Instead, by forcing the Serbian government to extradite Milosevic to The Hague, the West has virtually guaranteed that many of the Serbs will not face up to their own role in the Yugoslav wars and will not come to understand why it is that the world so long thought them a nation of thugs. His trial will easily be dismissed, not without justification, as a piece of Western political theatre – “foreigners’ justice”.

It is mystifying, but to judge from the rejoicing which has followed the extradition, and from the gushing words of approval from American, British, German, French and UN leaders, no one, apparently, has thought this problem through. Indeed, in the enthusiasm for this new form of justice, practically no one seems to have thought what, exactly, Milosevic’s trial is supposed to achieve at all. Is it to serve an abstract idea of justice – or to help a particular country, and a particular set of victims, get over a particular trauma? Do we want to make ourselves feel morally superior – or do we actually want to prevent mass murder from taking place in the future? Is the trial supposed to be for us, or for them?

Were Milosevic the ex-dictator of a country which had not yet rejected his legacy, there might, perhaps, be a case for a Western trial. Were his country one whose political or judicial system was not able to deal with the trial – as, for example, the Rwandan courts cannot deal with the huge number of alleged participants in the massacre of the Hutus – there might be a case for holding a Serbian trial outside the country. But Serbia is led by the very people who overthrew Milosevic, and they were preparing to put him on trial in any case.

It isn’t as if there aren’t precedents either. Over the past decade or two, dozens of newly democratic, ex-communist or ex-authoritarian countries found ways to confront or overcome the past. Among the most succesful examwas the “truth commission” conducted in South Africa, which allowed both the perpetrators of apartheid and its victims to question one another in a public forum – a South African public forum.

Those who participated found the experience cathartic; those who watched learned, sometimes for the first time, the real history of their country. No one has been sent before the firing squad as a result, but that isn’t what the South Africans wanted – and as it is they who will now have to live together in one country, that seems fair enough.

What is disturbing about the Milosevic trial is that it is part of a rarely questioned, rapidly spreading conviction that there is such a thing as “international justice”, which can easily be served by international courts, whose decisions will somehow reflect “universal law” – law, that is, designed and imposed by outsiders, and Western outsiders at that. The well-intentioned campaigners for “international justice” were also responsible for the wrong-headed attempt to extradite General Pinochet to Spain; wrong-headed, that is, because it is the Chileans who should decide whether to try him, not the Spanish.

They are also behind the drive to set up an International Criminal Court, a permanent version of the UN tribunal in the Hague. So far, 36 countries have ratified treaties approving the court, and when the number reaches 60, the court will come into being. That the “international” court will be perceived as the purely Western institution it is, bothers no one – just as it bothers no one that the Serbs may well reject the decisions about Milosevic taken by the “international” tribunal in the Hague.

And not only the Serbs. As news of the extradition broke, our “international” trial was also condemned by President Putin of Russia. No wonder: if our well-intentioned drive for justice were not plagued by hypocrisy, he would be standing in the dock as well, for carrying out virtually identical crimes in Chechnya. Yes, we have high standards, yes, we enforce our morality – but only, it would seem, when the country concerned is so poor it must sell us its ex-dictator for $1.3 billion worth of aid.