The Hague on Trial

The other "trial of the century" and international justice


Slated to start October 19, the "trial of the century"—a title previously bestowed on the trials of Alger Hiss, Adolf Eichmann, and Michael Jackson—is set to beam from the Middle East into American living rooms. But before we get sucked into the spectacle of Saddam, seven henchmen, and five judges, it's worth checking in with another has-been despot. Hussein is not the first dictator to be removed from his country at the behest of the U.S. government, accused of war crimes, and held up for judgment; he's the second in five years.

Slobodan Milosevic may no longer be the big draw among dictators awaiting judgment, but his trial at The Hague, now in its third year, chugs along whether the media show up or not. While the rest of the world has turned has been tuned into Saddam, Journalist Chris Stephen has been covering Milosevic and an international court's first crack at justice. Judgement Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic, is his brave attempt to remind us that someone, somewhere, is still paying attention to international law.

Though it bills itself a "courtroom drama," Judgement Day is a polemic in support of international justice. It's not a particularly subtle one. In the first 500 words of so, we are told that the trial of Slobodan Milosevic is "one of the greatest criminal trials ever held"; that the "future of war crimes justice itself" hangs in the balance; that this is "truly epic"; that "never before has an entire justice system hinged so heavily on the result of a single case." Stephen believes the Hague tribunal is a test case for the International Criminal Court, and he's convinced that the International Criminal Court is the future of justice.

Launched in 1993, the tribunal was an ad hoc answer to the ongoing atrocity in Bosnia. One of the court's architects refers to it as "Frankenstein," a slapped together mishmash of laws from the Geneva Conventions, western legal tradition, and Hague law. The court was stuffed in the headquarters of an old insurance company, chronically under-funded and understaffed. It was born at the behest of the Clinton administration and wholeheartedly rejected by the Bush administration. Yet eight years after its inception, prosecutors had snagged Milosevic and built a massive case against him.

Stephen's retelling of the court's humble beginnings is a good read, but he is at his best in retelling the complex tragedy of the former Yugoslavia. He deftly guides us through the vicissitudes of a nation with a predilection for tearing itself apart, healing for a bit and then ripping out the sutures. In stark prose, he relates the rape, massacre, beatings and starvation that marked Milosevic's rule. "Pieces of flesh had been pasted onto the walls by the force of the blasts," runs a typical description. After images like that, the trial falls like a flat punch line.

To recap: In the summer of 2001, the Bush administration announced that all aid to Yugoslavia would stop unless authorities handed Milosevic to The Hague. Impoverished after years of war and subsequent sanctions, Serbia accepted the ultimatum. The court, now swollen to over 1000 employees, spent February 2002 through February 2004 trying to pin 66 war crimes charges to the unrepentant Slobodan. Milosevic has thanked them with a series of tactics that include presenting a witness list of 1613 names (including President Bill Clinton, French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair) and killing massive amounts of time with a tangential, half-serious defense. The Hague (formal name: The International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations in International Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991) does not have a knack for brevity.

There are many worrisome objections to an international criminal court, and not all of them hinge on the paranoia of a superpower with a distaste for multilateralism. You will find none of them in this book. Stephen largely ignores the concern that the threat of international justice may prolong a conflict by blocking a leader's exit. If he is even slightly bothered by the moral colonialism implied in strong-arming a nation to surrender its villains, Stephen never lets onto the fact. Instead, he spends 150 pages building the case that Slobodan Milosevic is a bad guy. Milosevic is clearly a man who belongs behind bars, but that tells us little about the right of an international tribunal to put him there.

Reading Stephen's account of the chaotic proceedings, it's hard to see the trial as anything more than a bizarre denouement after a string of atrocities. Instead of tackling this frontloaded story, he cheerleads the bureaucratic quagmire that marks its end. Saddam's upcoming trial, held in the nation he terrorized, conducted by Iraqis who endured his regime, may prove no more satisfying than the dispassionate Hague. But at the very least, the best way to bring a dictator to justice remains an open question; it is unclear that Milosevic's painfully slow trial is an argument for trial-by-international-consensus.

The Hague may well be the best response we have to the horrors of the former Yugoslavia. Judgement Day fails to grasp that it's still a woefully inadequate one.