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Prosecutor Discusses Milosevic on Anniversary of His Death


Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was found dead in his jail cell in The Hague one year ago (3/11/07). His death put an abrupt end to his four-year trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the Balkans wars of the 1990s, and left his many alleged victims hungry for a verdict they would never see. Lauren Comiteau spoke with Louise Arbour, the prosecutor who indicted Milosevic, about his premature death and its implications for justice.

Former prosecutor Louise Arbour is now the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. She remembers the day she heard Slobodan Milsoevic was dead.

"It was probably the biggest professional disappointment to think that, because so much hope on the part of the victims was resting on this trial coming to a conclusion, with the truth being told," said Arbour. "So it is not so much a question of his punishment.

"The reality is he spent the last few years of his life in prison being called to account," she continued. "But I think it is the sense of non-closure, particularly for the victims, that was very sad. Now of course all the evidence collected in the long run will serve historians, will serve the purpose of preventing any revisionism, re-writing history. So it is not wasted by any measure."

Louise Arbour made history as the first person to indict a sitting head of state for war crimes. The first charges concerned fighting in Kosovo, but later included genocide allegations in Bosnia. Bringing the first charges during NATO's bombing campaign to end the Milosevic crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo was a gamble.

Arbour says at the time, she was worried her indictment could derail any potential peace process.

"For me the trick was what is my mandate? And my mandate was to make sure that this man stands trial in The Hague," she said. "And I was very concerned that if we did not move before any peace deal, that there could be - I did not think that there could be a legal amnesty that would stick, that would be binding, but I thought there could be a de-facto amnesty as in he would step down, he would go to a friendly country, and things would become difficult in reality, not in law. So that was the driving consideration there."

By the time Slobodon Milosevic's trial started in 2002, Arbour was back in her native Canada, a justice on her country's Supreme Court.

It was left to her successor, Carla Del Ponte, to try the former Serb president. By this time, there were 66 charges to prove, and Del Ponte wanted to try all of them at one time, from ethnic cleansing in Croatia to deportation in Kosovo to genocide in Bosnia.

But Milosevic, who insisted on defending himself, died before his four-year, $200-million case could conclude. This meant judges never got the chance to rule on all the evidence prosecutors presented, including the testimony of 300 witnesses and 5,000 exhibits. Arbour says his trial is full of lessons to be learned for the future.

"It is pretty clear that had the prosecutor proceeded only with Kosovo first, there is a good chance that there would have been a conclusion to at least that part," she said. "But I can see also the merits of putting the entire case together. Other mistakes, possibly in retrospect, should these tribunals permit defendants to be self-represented when you see the heavy institutional demands that puts with amicus and other assistants, I think these are all issues which we are going to have to learn in the future."

International humanitarian law has progressed since Arbour's days in The Hague. The International Criminal Court, the first permanent body set-up to try the leaders most responsible for war crimes, is reaping the benefits of the Tribunal's experiment in international law.

But the consequences of the Milosevic regime live on. The fate of Kosovo Province, which he tried to violently control, will be decided by the U.N. Security Council, as Serbia and ethnic Albanians were unable to negotiate a settlement after more than a year of talks.

And Serbia is being prevented from joining the European Union until it hands over Bosnia's Serb wartime leaders, General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. With the World Court's recent ruling that Serbia, under Slobodan Milosevic's leadership, failed to prevent genocide in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war, it is still being held to account to turn over the indicted former leaders to the Tribunal.

Arbour says all countries are bound by the court's decision.

"Whoever is sheltering him should read that part of the decision very carefully, because the responsibility to punish someone who is indicted, I think, includes the responsibility to surrender him to the court," she said.

With Slobodan Milosevic dead, the trial of General Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are the last chance for the architects of Bosnia's war to face justice.

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