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From Under the Cloud of Milosevic

The death of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic brought an abrupt end to the United Nations-sponsored trial of the man often called the "Butcher of the Balkans".

Slobodan Milosevic had been charged with more than 60 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide for his role in four failed Balkan wars in the 1990s.

The Serbian strongman defied international sanctions and NATO air strikes during nearly a decade of turmoil. Ultimately, Milosevic was driven from office by a popular uprising after his defeat at the polls in 2000, but not before more than 200-thousand people had died, as many as three-million others were left homeless and much of the former Yugoslavia was in economic ruins.

Richard Dicker says, "Victims have lost the opportunity for some redress and closure because there will be no final verdict on his role in the events. Richard Dicker, Director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch in New York, adds that Milosevic's death is a loss for The Hague tribunal as well.

"It's been four years of litigation; it's been extremely high profile," says Mr. Dicker. Obviously, it's cost a great deal of money. And not to bring it to final resolution is a setback for the tribunal. But that setback should not be allowed to obscure the achievements of this tribunal over the last 12 years in trying to render justice for horrific crimes in the former Yugoslavia."

Powerful Evidence of Crimes

Milosevic was the first former head of state to appear before an international criminal court and faced life in prison if convicted. But many observers argue that The Hague was the wrong place for his trial, too far away from the Balkans and Serbia.

Among them is European affairs analyst John Hulsman of The Heritage Foundation here in Washington. He says, "I would rather this be done locally because, frankly, locally is where the educational aspects of this need to happen. And rather than this be seen by a bunch of unelected, unnamed technocratic judges who no one has heard of, trying him for these political crimes, this should have been done politically by the people in the region. This is just one of many ways, which in a way he [i.e., Milosevic] 'cheated the hangman' [i.e., avoided being punished] and will leave the PR [i.e., public relations] battle to continue without him."

"But keep in mind that this was the first case of this kind ever against someone of his stature," says Nina Bang-Jensen. "And the court had many different goals in bringing this case forward." Nina Bang-Jensen is Executive Director for the Washington-based Coalition for International Justice.

Bang-Jensen says, "Obviously, the principal one was adjudicating whether this individual committed these crimes. But there was another purpose, which was to bring facts forward, to bring a record of what happened to the people in the region. It was not a normal trial, so I don't think you could have treated it like a standard single murder."

Nina Bang-Jensen adds that powerful evidence of Belgrade's involvement in war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia was disclosed during the trial.

Last year, a video tape emerged that depicted a Serbian military unit executing six Bosnian Muslims around the time of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some eight-thousand people. The video forced Serbs to confront their country's involvement in the worst massacre in Europe since the Holocaust and to consider their government's responsibility for the Balkan wars.

Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch says Milosevic's trial gave many victims and their families the opportunity to voice their suffering and pain. Moreover, he says, the tribunal carried a message to the world.

A Different Path

According to Mr. Dicker, "The days when horrific crimes could be carried out with absolute impunity, the mass murder of innocent civilians, those days are over. And at the start of the 21st century, while human rights atrocity crimes are still going on, nonetheless there is a movement to hold those most responsible to account before a court of law."

Many observers note that those who stood up to Milosevic after his wartime defeat and turned him over to the International War Crimes Tribunal in 2001, acknowledge Serbia's need to join the West and its principles.

Daniel Serwer, Vice President of the Center for Postconflict Peace and Stability Operations at the United States Institute of Peace, says the majority of Serbs embrace tolerance and democracy. He says, "The path Serbia is on today leads in quite a different direction [than during Milosevic's time], toward the European Union. So it seems to me that Milosevic and his political program, his methods of protecting power, are not only out of style, but finished forever. There are, of course, some people in Serbia who are nostalgic for Milosevic, but it seems to me they need to recognize that he represented a past that wasn't good for the region and Serbia."

Most analysts agree that the Milosevic trial, while not completed, served a purpose beyond that of rendering justice. They say it reiterated Serbia's task of reintegrating with the rest of Europe on the basis of common democratic values and a commitment to peace.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.