It is probably safe to say that the war crimes trial in The Hague of the former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic is not going well. At least so far. No credible witnesses have come forward to testify against the man who is credited with starting four Balkan wars. No documentary evidence has been advanced to prove his “command responsibility” for murderous ethnic conflicts. The prosecution’s bungling has turned what was once touted as a “water-tight case” into a battle of wits, allowing Milosevic to mount a fifth war–legal and psychological–against the court itself.
It is, of course, an uneven battle. The court is supported by the might of the United States and its vast eavesdropping and intelligence-gathering facilities. Behind the scenes, Americans have tried to induce some of Milosevic’s former henchmen to testify against him. (That includes the notorious paramilitary leader known as Arkan, who was gunned down inside the Belgrade Intercontinental two weeks after he lunched there with an American intermediary for the CIA.) Publicly, the United States has linked all financial assistance to Serbia to the extradition of suspected war criminals; the hope is that some of them may provide the needed information about Milosevic’s “command responsibility.”
The former dictator, on the other hand, has to rely mainly on himself, his wife and a few supporters. The image of a solitary individual standing up against the world not only appeals to his vanity but also seems to energize him. His defense strategy is brilliantly cunning, designed to play on Serbia’s psychological vulnerabilities and continued Serb resentment of the 1999 NATO bombing. From the outset he has said that the court is illegal, that it is NATO’s victors’ justice and that he would not accept its judgment. Yet, acting as his own defense attorney, he has used the tribunal as a stage for his antics, playing the role of a defiant David to NATO’s Goliath, the victim of powerful foreign enemies, and in the process doing all he can to make his a trial of the whole Serbian nation.
Opinion polls suggest that his strategy is working in Serbia. Even though four out of five Serbs want to see Milosevic tried in a Serbian court for crimes committed against his people, a majority applaud his stand at The Hague.
This is unfortunate. This public perception is likely to discourage potential witnesses from coming forward. In the absence of compelling evidence against him in court, Milosevic’s political rehabilitation becomes a distinct possibility. More significant will be the impact on the world’s first permanent court–which is to be established also in The Hague–to replace ad hoc courts like the one sitting in judgment of Milosevic. But it is up to the ad hoc tribunal to come up with the precedent-setting legal standard of “command responsibility” (the conditions under which a tyrant, even if not directly involved, can be held responsible for crimes committed by his subordinates).