Will Milosevic's indictment matter?

They're not dancing in the streets of Sarajevo yet, because the indicted Serbian war criminal may never be brought to justice.

By Laura Rozen

Published May 27, 1999 10:00AM (EDT)

When news of Slobodan Milosevic's impending indictment by the war crimes tribunal broke late Wednesday night, the people of Sarajevo, Bosnia -- who had been shelled, starved, sniped at and besieged by Milosevic's forces for three and a half years -- cheered. Not for the indictment, which few had yet heard about, but for the victory of Manchester United against Football Club Bavaria Munich, broadcast live from Barcelona on local television. With the war over, Sarajevo has developed a semblance of normalcy, and soccer gets more play than even welcome news about Milosevic four years after he terrorized the country.

But as dawn broke Thursday, the news of Milosevic's impending indictment crept across the former Yugoslavia. It brought the families of millions of Milosevic's victims some vindication, surely, but mostly it carried a sense of the plodding slowness of justice. Celebration was not immediate, because of lingering uncertainty about whether the indictment will lead to Milosevic standing trial, or even being forced from office.

Louise Arbour, chief war crimes prosecutor for the Balkans, announced the indictment at a press conference in The Hague on Thursday afternoon. Although Milosevic led his country into four nationalist wars that have killed more than 200,000 people, made 3 million people refugees and spawned atrocities not seen in Europe since the Holocaust, Arbour said the indictment was based on his recent persecution of Kosovar Albanians.

"It's the right reaction, but it's at least five years late," said Mirza Hajric, an advisor to the Bosnian Muslim president Alija Izetbegovic, by phone from the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo Thursday. "I think this should speed up the Dayton peace process, since I believe Milosevic has been a major impediment to the peace process."

"We have a saying in the Bosnian language," Hajric adds, "Justice is slow, but it gets there. Basically, it means, justice is finally done."

In Milosevic's Serbia, state-controlled television did not carry any mention of the indictments. But for those with access to CNN and the BBC, the news brought concern and even outrage that the timing of the indictment -- smack in the middle of Russian-led negotiations on a possible peace deal -- could scuttle their only hope for relief from NATO bombing, which residents of Serbia have now endured for 63 days.

"I'm very upset, absolutely," said Zarko Korac, a professor of psychology at the University of Belgrade and a pro-democracy activist, by telephone from the Serbian capital Thursday. "I don't question the decision to indict Milosevic itself, but the timing of the decision. As scheduled, Milosevic's indictment will get announced exactly at the same moment when [Russian peace envoy Viktor] Chernomyrdin is supposed to arrive in Belgrade for new peace talks."

Chernomyrdin in fact canceled his scheduled trip to Belgrade Thursday, after it became clear that his Serbian interlocutor was to be publicly accused of crimes against humanity.

Milosevic was indicted along with four of his deputies, including the Serbian president Milan Milutinovic, the chief of staff of the Yugoslav army Dragoljub Ojdanic, the Yugoslav deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic, and Serbian internal minister Vlajko Stojilkovic. Arbour did not rule out the possibility of expanding the list of Serbian indictees beyond those five, and emphasized that the accused were indicted on war crimes charges pertaining to Kosovo alone, and could also possibly be charged with war crimes committed earlier this decade in Croatia and Bosnia.

The news is a bombshell -- not only bringing into question the West's willingness to enter into a future peace agreement for Kosovo with an indicted war criminal, but also making clear the need for the West to look beyond the entire Milosevic administration for a more suitable peace partner in Yugoslavia -- perhaps as far away as Montenegro, the smaller Yugoslav republic, whose president Milo Djukanovic was in Germany for an international conference on the Balkans as the indictments were read out on Thursday. There are no Serbian leaders left untouched by the taint of war crimes. Ojdanic headed up the Yugoslav army and Stojilkovic led the Serbian police -- two forces that, working together with roving gangs of paramilitaries, have employed violence and terror to drive more than half of Kosovo's Albanian population from their homes in just the past two months, in a planned military campaign known as "Operation Horseshoe."

But despite the mounting pile of evidence that points to Milosevic's responsibility for war crimes, U.S. leaders have made no promises to avoid future negotiations with him. Some U.S. diplomats, notably Richard Holbrooke, consider Milosevic the only man in Belgrade who can deliver a peace agreement. On Wednesday, as the news of the impending indictment broke, Clinton administration officials insisted they could still work with the Serbian leader.

Nevertheless, the indictment signals a sea change in Western perceptions of Milosevic, and has forced some Western leaders to acknowledge that -- even if they conclude a peace deal with him -- Milosevic is a man with too much blood on his hands to be left in office.

In her Thursday afternoon press conference, Judge Arbour said the five men were accused not just of "command responsibility" for the crimes that have occurred in Kosovo -- that is, that they had knowledge of the crimes and failed to prevent them or punish those responsible. Instead the tribunal found the five men had direct personal criminal responsibility for the war crimes. Arbour said the tribunal has evidence that Milosevic and his deputies were personally criminally responsible for "ordering, planning, instigating, executing, aiding and abetting the persecution, deportation and murder of Kosovo Albanians," and with violating the laws and customs of war. She said in particular the tribunal was in possession of evidence that showed the five men were responsible for the deliberate deportation of 740,000 Kosovo Albanians from Kosovo, and the murder of 340 Kosovo Albanians.

A press release issued by the tribunal specifies that "between 1 January and late May 1999, forces under the control of the five accused persecuted the Kosovo Albanian civilian population on political, racial or religious grounds. By the date of the indictment, approximately 740,000 Kosovo Albanians, about one-third of the entire Kosovo Albanian population, had been expelled from Kosovo. Thousands more are believed to be internally displaced. An unknown number of Kosovo Albanians have been killed in the operations by forces of the [former republic of Yugoslavia] and Serbia. Specifically, the five indictees are charged with the murder of over 340 persons identified by name in an annex to the indictment."

Saying she could see no lasting peace for Yugoslavia if it was built on granting immunity to Milosevic, Arbour, a Canadian known for her fierce independence in a job that is strained by intense political pressures from Western governments, addressed the question of whether an indictment of Milosevic will make it awkward for NATO leaders to conclude a peace deal with him.

"No credible, lasting peace can be built upon impunity and injustice," Arbour concluded. "The refusal to bring war criminals to account would be an affront to those who obey the law, and a betrayal of those who rely on it for their life and security."

In recent weeks, Arbour has pestered NATO governments, particularly the United States, to turn over to the tribunal evidence the governments have collected via satellite, human intelligence, wire taps and witness testimony, so that the panel could proceed with war crimes indictments against those responsible, including Milosevic. On Tuesday, the U.S. ambassador for war crimes, David Sheffer, announced that the United States was turning over such evidence to the body, known as the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia). Britain, Germany and France are reported to have turned over evidence of war crimes to the ICTY earlier in the NATO campaign.

Until recently, the ICTY has primarily focused its investigations on those suspected of war crimes in the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia (1991-1995) -- and has a dismal record in getting people facing war crimes charges to The Hague for trial. Of 84 war crimes suspects indicted by the ICTY, only one has been sentenced, two have died in prison and several have had their charges dismissed, but most have not been captured at all. Many Bosnians point to the fact that although the Bosnian Serb leaders considered most responsible for atrocities and massacres in Bosnia -- former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and general Ratko Mladic -- were indicted years ago, the two men remain free. That, critics say, is a grim portent that the indictment of Milosevic may not mean very much.

"Milosevic has played the key role in creating the catastrophe that has engulfed this region for the last decade," Bosnian presidential advisor Mirza Hajric said from Sarajevo. "But the fact that someone like Karadzic, who has been indicted for four years, is still free, casts a shadow over this indictment, which I support. NATO should arrest Karadzic if they want to send the right signal to Milosevic."

Elected as president of Serbia on May 8, 1989, Milosevic began his career almost exactly 10 years ago. Perhaps it is fitting that it was in Kosovo -- the place where he is accused of perpetrating crimes against humanity -- that the young communist apparatchik discovered that Serbian nationalism could be his ticket to gaining popular political power in a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia that was beginning to disintegrate. Four years ago, after presiding over the war in Bosnia that killed 200,000 people and forced more than 2 million from their homes because of their ethnicity, Milosevic was invited to Dayton, Ohio, to participate in U.S.-led peace talks that ultimately brought an end to the Bosnian war.

But since 1998, Milosevic has shed the image of peacemaker to again employ the ruthless tactics of a dictator. The U.S. State Department estimates that 1.4 million Kosovars -- out of an original population of 1.8 million -- have been forced from their homes by Serbian troops and police under Milosevic's control, and another 4,000 murdered since March 24. Reports of systematic rapes and satellite images of mass graves contribute to a harrowing picture of the violence unleashed by Milosevic in Kosovo.

President Clinton, in a radio address Thursday to the 840,000 deported people of Kosovo, promised them that they would have justice.

"On the eve of a new century, we refuse to be intimidated by a dictator who is trying to revive the worst memories of the century we are leaving," Clinton said. "The United States and NATO are with you, and we will stay with you long after you return home."

Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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