Milosevic and the Beginning of Honesty

The New York Times
June 30, 2001

When Bob Stewart, who commanded the first regiment of British peacekeepers in Bosnia, was asked by the BBC for his reaction to the extradition of Slobodan Milosevic, he responded with one joyous word: “Hallelujah.”

Across Europe and America, similar words of thanks — and astonishment — were whispered and shouted by people who did not expect the former Serbian leader to wind up at The Hague so soon after being toppled from power. Yet there he is, behind bars at the United Nations detention center, with a coffee maker in his cell and a war-crimes trial in his future.

The time has come, in other words, to look beyond Mr. Milosevic. The trial’s usefulness will not be to determine his guilt or innocence — even a legal dream team will have a hard time getting him off the hook — but to educate Serbs about the crimes he masterminded in their name and with their support. For Serbia, extraditing Mr. Milosevic may be easier than accepting the truth.

Serbs have been notably reluctant to admit they were the authors, not the victims, of war crimes. Taking responsibility for these deeds is a condition of reconciliation between Serbs and their onetime enemies. The new Serbian government, under Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, recently began the process of deprogramming. It has publicized the discovery in Serbia of mass graves of Kosovars murdered by Mr. Milosevic’s security forces.

But that candor may have had less to do with Mr. Djindjic’s yearning for truth than with his desire to weaken opposition to Mr. Milosevic’s extradition, thus clearing the way for an infusion of Western aid.

With Mr. Milosevic at The Hague, Serbs may be tempted to think, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Most Serbs view the United Nations tribunal as biased, noting that Franjo Tudjman, the late Croatian president, was never indicted, although he was clearly guilty of war crimes in Bosnia.

As a result, Serbs have all but ignored The Hague trials so far. Western governments need to improve the tribunal’s profile and credibility in Serbia.

They need to provide the funds, and apply whatever pressure is needed, to ensure that Mr. Milosevic’s trial is broadcast on television and radio in Serbia. They also need to provide Serb journalists with the financial resources to travel to The Hague to cover the trial, which is likely to be lengthy.

To the extent it’s possible, the goal is to ensure that the verdict is accepted by Serbs. Every effort should be made to include Serb judges on the panel of international jurists who will determine Mr. Milosevic’s fate. And if security concerns can be met, part of the trial might even be held in Serbia.

There is ample reason for supporters of global justice to whisper “hallelujah” this weekend, but Slobodan Milosevic’s extradition is just a first step. Serbia is only beginning its reckoning with history; deadly and durable myths must be destroyed.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.