Milosevic indictment sets needed precedent
July 11, 2001
Slobodan Milosevic's prosecution is a step forward for international human rights and for democracy in Serbia.
When the chief prosecutor at the U.N. war crimes court indicted Milosevic in the waning days of the Kosovo war, critics argued that it would prolong the Yugoslav president's time in office by giving him another incentive to cling to power. That was in May 1999.
In fact, the indictment helped to delegitimize Milosevic. By October 2000, he had been voted out of office. By April this year, he was under arrest. Now, finally, he is in the tribunal's custody in The Hague, Netherlands.
Prosecuting people outside their own countries for human-rights crimes is a new phenomenon. Until the last decade, most dictators used violence and intimidation to preclude any possibility of trial in their own countries. Now international tribunals and foreign courts have begun to bring these dictators to trial on charges of genocide, torture and rape as crimes of war. This helps enforce a standard of human rights and should give dictators pause before they commit such atrocities.
Behind the struggle over Milosevic has been a debate over whether bringing a powerful tyrant to justice would undermine his country's fragile transition to democracy. It is a debate that resonates around the world in countries that are emerging from dictatorship.
But reckoning with the crimes of the past does not impede the transition to democracy; it facilitates it.
When former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 for the kidnapping, torture and murder of thousands of people, even some of his critics argued that prosecuting him would destabilize the civilian government in Santiago. Democracy would survive, they said, only by respecting the amnesty that the Chilean military had negotiated for itself. It was better to let sleeping strongmen lie.
But look what happened. Pinochet's arrest allowed the Chilean political system finally to emerge from his shadow. The Chilean judiciary has now mustered the independence to strip him of his immunity and indict him. This week he was declared mentally unfit to stand trial, but the principle that he could be prosecuted has been upheld.
Democracy is about extending the rule of law to everybody, including the heads of state. That's why prosecuting dictators is so important.
In Peru, the autocrat Alberto Fujimori was chased out of power last year because the Peruvian people were tired of lawlessness at the top. And now, with the revelations of bribery by the former spy chief, Vladimir Montesinos, President-elect Alejandro Toledo is vowing to pursue justice against Montesinos as a crucial element in restoring the rule of law.
In Yugoslavia, Milosevic's transfer to The Hague has brought into the open a power struggle between the nationalistic Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Zoran Djindjic, the Serbian prime minister who ordered Milosevic's arrest and surrender. It does not appear, however, that the conflict imperils the democratic transition itself.
Quite the contrary. As Milosevic's trial is broadcast back to Serbia, millions of ordinary Serbs will see and hear the full story of the crimes committed in their name. That should make it harder for nationalist politicians to manipulate their people by hiding the truth. And Milosevic and many of his top cronies will not be on the scene, waiting to take advantage of the moments when people grow frustrated with the pace of reform.
Western pressure played the key role in facilitating Milosevic's transfer to The Hague. The challenge for Western policy now is to help the proponents of justice within Serbia. Twenty-six indictees remain at large in the Serbian part of Bosnia, while 11 more live in Serbia itself. All of them -- especially those most responsible for the atrocities, the Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and the military leader Gen. Ratko Mladic -- must go to The Hague.
To insist on Belgrade's full cooperation with the war crimes tribunal is not a punitive measure that will hamper Yugoslav democracy. It is the best way to ensure its ultimate triumph.
Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch (www.hrw.org), which is based in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.