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On Point

Milosevic Did The Crime, But Will He Do The Time?


by Austin Bay

At one level, the war crimes case against former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic is that simple.

Not that 8,000 lost lives is simple, in any sense. The legal process and procedures The Hague's international criminal court must follow are detailed -- no simple there. The potential international political consequences of merely arresting Milosevic, much less trying him, are extraordinarily complex.

Eight thousand dead -- eight followed by three numbing zeroes -- becomes an almost unreal figure, though witness testimony and grave-site excavation in Bosnia indicate that's the number of Muslim men murdered by Serbs around the town of Sbrenica in July 1995. The death count makes Sbrenica the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II.

The mathematics of mass murder figures all too large in 20th century history. Start with King Leopold's Congo, pass through Tibet, Cambodia, Rwanda. In Europe, Hitler and Stalin are not mere echoes, for their legacy of homicide still shapes the current landscape. If 8,000 slain in Sbrenica just evades the grasp, the Holocaust's 6 million murdered Jews, what the Nuremburg Trials attempted to address, is utterly beyond comprehension.

The 20th century's ugly record is the big reason Milosevic faces trial. Holding criminally liable dictators who seed ethnic hatreds and spawn "crimes against humanity" in pursuit of political power is a pragmatic attempt to free the 21st century from the same genocidal fate.

But with Milosevic in the dock, once again issues of legal and moral authority arise. Moreover, political decisions made by Western leaders may complicate his prosecution.

Nuremburg faced, satisfactorily, the parsing of "what is a crime in war" and "what is an act of war." Auschwitz and the other death camps were a mechanized death industry that had nothing to do with frightened soldiers shooting prisoners in battle. The Nazis' absolute level of evil transcended gray zone and nuance.

Yet Nuremburg raised issues of sovereignty, which were not so successfully navigated. Nazi crimes were evident -- and postwar Allied power overwhelming. Does might make right? To paraphrase Mao, the man who engineered Tibet, does what is "legal" merely "grow out of the barrel of a gun?"

Yes, the U.N. court is established by treaty, but Milosevic intends to exploit this intricate, fractal argument. The Hague's justice, he'll say, is merely revenge by rich and powerful victors. He'll portray the billion dollars in Western aid sent to Serbia the day after his arrest as bribery. He'll exploit resentment of the United States. He'll argue that for the moment America holds the gun. His sound bite will be, "Who are you to try me?"

At his arraignment, he said as much. Milosevic told the judge, "This trial's aim is to produce false justification for the war crimes of NATO committed in Yugoslavia."

NATO's war crimes? In October 2000, The Hague subpoenaed U.S. Army Gen. Eric Shinseki for U.S. actions during the arrest of a Serb concentration camp commandant. It was a doofus act by the court, but it gives Milosevic ammo for questioning jurisdiction and debating the definition of a war crime.

Milosevic will play other dictionary games. For those of us who would reserve international trials for the crime of genocide, that word has been unfortunately diminished and maimed. Milosevic has called the Kosovar Albanians' high birth rate a "demographic genocide" against Serbs. Taking a cue from Saddam in Iraq, Milosevic portrayed U.N. trade sanctions against Serbia as another form of "genocide." Hey, environmental extremists regularly cheapen the word when they accuse opponents of the Kyoto treaty of "committing genocide against the planet."

The canny Milosevic may in fact exploit Sbrenica. How? At the moment, the Sbrenica massacre doesn't appear on Milosevic's charge sheet. The U.N. arraigned him for crimes in Kosovo from January 1999 through June 1999.

No doubt evidence exists that links Milosevic to massacres in Kosovo, but avoiding Sbrenica smacks of political calculation.

In 1995, after the world knew of the Sbrenica murders, President Bill Clinton made Milosevic his "peace partner" in the Dayton Accords. Remember the photo ops touting Clinton the peacemaker? Why would an American peacemaker sign a treaty with a war criminal? That bad foreign policy decision may well inhibit prosecuting Milosevic for one of his heinous most crimes.

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