Milosevic in The Hague

JUSTICE AS A POLICY

October 30, 2002, is just another day in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic. A stocky former Serb intelligence agent, Slobodan Lazarevic, is testifying against his erstwhile boss and former political idol. Lazarevic had planned to testify in secret, as witness C-001. (He is so smooth on the stand that the Serbian press corps dubs him "Agent 001, License to Kill.") Milosevic, serving as his own counsel, asks, "Based on my information ..., your wife's name is [deleted]?" As the prosecution objects furiously, pointing out that Lazarevic is in a witness relocation program and demanding that his wife's name be stricken from the record, Milosevic adds, "His wife worked as a [deleted]." It is a blatant attempt at intimidation: you mess with me, I mess with your family. Even behind bulletproof glass, the former strongman still aims to be dangerous.

The world has looked away just as the Milosevic trial has gotten really interesting. In February 2002, raging against NATO conspiracies and victor's justice, the ousted Yugoslav leader was hauled into court in The Hague. This was an amazing triumph for the human rights movement, but at the same time the realization of a nightmare that had haunted the Allied officials who planned the Nuremberg tribunals nearly 60 years ago. They had worried that Nazi leaders would be able to use those trials as a forum to justify their actions and present themselves as martyrs to subsequent generations. Milosevic has tried to do the same and, slowed by his antics, the trial has now entered its second year with the prosecution still only partway through its case.

As the most important moment for international justice since the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, Milosevic's trial is a possible watershed. Charged with committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Bosnia and crimes against humanity in Kosovo and Croatia, he is the first former head of state to land in the dock of an international war crimes tribunal. The trial's success or failure will therefore shape all future efforts at punishing the world's bloodiest war criminals -- including those at the International Criminal Court (ICC) that started up in March, and any postwar tribunals in Iraq. International justice must not only be done, but also be made to look useful and appealing so that future politicians will decide, in the phrase of the late political theorist Judith Shklar, to choose "justice, as a policy."

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