The trial in The Hague of the first state president indicted for genocide was to be the ultimate showdown. In the culmination of a fifty-year struggle by the human rights community against impunity, the firm weight of evidence and international law would be brought to bear on one of the world’s most brutal dictators, Slobodan Milosevic. But the set-piece confrontation that began on February 12–a combined case covering three wars over ten years, which is expected to last more than two years–soon ran into problems.

By refusing legal counsel because he rejects the legitimacy of the court, Milosevic did more than insure the image of himself sitting alone against the world. He also gave himself license to thunder, without risking cross-examination, about the Balkan wars as a Western “Nazi” conspiracy to destroy socialist Yugoslavia. “This is a political trial that has nothing to do with the law,” he declared.

For procedural reasons, the judges had the case run backward, starting with Kosovo and later taking up the earlier wars in Croatia and Bosnia. This allowed Milosevic to focus initially on the NATO bombing campaign–spending many hours in his opening speech listing civilians and civilian institutions hit (and including many horribly graphic photographs) and stressing his argument that Albanians fled Western bombs, not Serbian forces.

Milosevic played to public opinion, and much of Belgrade was delighted, with a local poll giving his performance high marks and his proud wife, Mira, beaming. If the tribunal hoped to break through Serbia’s deep rejection of any responsibility for the wars and atrocities, the proceedings appeared to be having the opposite effect. “He has decided to work for the Serbian people and not for himself. He has broken the media lies produced about us,” boasted one parliamentarian from Milosevic’s Socialist Party.

Nor has Milosevic been totally alone outside Serbia. The International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, comprising activists, lawyers and intellectuals (including Harold Pinter and Ramsey Clark) has asserted that the “kangaroo court” with its “victor’s justice” is illegitimate because the UN Security Council does not have explicit authority under Chapter VII of its charter to establish tribunals. Critics of the court also focused on small errors and confused witnesses in a prosecution case that began weakly. Some Albanians who took the stand seemed lost, failing to nail down the points sought by the prosecution or appearing overwhelmed by Milosevic’s aggressive questioning.

The presiding judge, who sparred so fiercely with the defendant in preliminary proceedings, settled into a routine allowing him fairly wide latitude to cross-examine witnesses, only occasionally scolding, “That is enough, Mr. Milosevic.” The schedule of the prosecution’s case is constantly revised, as the defendant draws out lengthy (sometimes surprisingly well-prepared) cross-examinations stressing the violence of NATO, the Kosovo Liberation Army and even Al Qaeda against innocent Serbs.

It was easy to imagine Milosevic’s performance sending quivers down spines at the US State Department and European foreign ministries as he threatened to call world leaders to the stand, highlight contradictions in the West’s Balkans policy as well as civilian deaths caused by its actions, and plot the judicial free-for-all Western governments most fear. Bush Administration officials, appearing before the House Foreign Relations Committee on February 28, criticized delay and mismanagement at the tribunal and called for curtailing some investigations. The comments were delivered by Pierre-Richard Prosper, ambassador at large for war crimes issues, in the very hours when NATO forces were attempting, and failing, to arrest former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia. (The Administration sees the arrest of Karadzic as key to its exit strategy for the Balkans and as a prerequisite for closure of the Hague tribunal on the former Yugoslavia by 2008.) Wire reports spoke of “abandoning” the UN system of tribunals and gave the impression that Prosper’s view of international tribunals was not far from that of Milosevic himself. Indeed, Washington has been adamant in its rejection of the permanent International Criminal Court, and its position on prisoners from Afghanistan has raised concern in Europe over its commitment to international humanitarian law. Prosper subsequently traveled to The Hague to make more emollient, if less publicized, remarks. Whether the episode was purposefully contradictory, or a storm brewed by selective reporting, a message had been sent.

But for Milosevic, none of this matters. Playing to the media, cross-examining witnesses on tangential issues, making accusations against others (Washington, Sarajevo, Saudi Arabia) instead of addressing charges in the indictment, indeed rejecting the authority of the tribunal (while fully participating)–these are all classic defense strategies. They may influence some opinion in Belgrade and even internationally, but the only relevant audience in the tribunal’s hybrid legal system is the panel of three judges who will examine the evidence against him.

Milosevic himself, in court, has several times confirmed a clear chain of military command within the Yugoslav forces. In the coming months, the prosecution can be expected to present senior witnesses from the Belgrade establishment who should go further to confirm a direct conspiracy from the top to commit crimes in Kosovo, particularly mass deportation. The Croatian and Bosnian cases are far more complex, taking place outside the territory over which Milosevic was the chief authority. But the prosecution has laid out detailed diagrams of control in what it calls a joint criminal enterprise, and by all accounts the legal teams on these cases are stronger. The record of Milosevic’s responsibility for the wars in the Balkans over the past decade will be aired.

It nonetheless remains a concern that critics, both pro-Milosevic and anti-international law, will exploit the impossibility of anyone but those obsessively following the whole case (available live online at to make highly selective critiques. In doing so, they may raise their own profiles but will impede the justice and reconciliation in the region that is the underlying goal of the war crimes tribunal.