Why Try War Criminals?

14 March 2006

Why Try War Criminals?

By Gwynne Dyer

I never met Adolf Hitler before he became famous. (I never met him afterwards, either, due to the accidents of nationality and birth-date.) But I did meet the “Butcher of the Balkans” before he became famous — and I promptly forgot him again Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian leader who was found dead in his prison cell in The Hague last Saturday at the age of sixty-four, was famous because the wars he unleashed in former Yugoslavia killed at least a quarter-million people. He was nowhere compared to Hitler, who was responsible for over 25 million deaths, but you’d think that he would at least leave a lasting impression. He didn’t.

I first interviewed Milosevic during some forgotten conference in Belgrade in 1982, having been refused interviews with all the more important politicians I had requested. All I really remember is his impressive hairstyle and the fact that he was a total apparatchik. He didn’t come across as a rabid Serbian nationalist, or indeed as a man who truly believed in anything at all; just another run-of-the-mill sociopath.

I didn’t write the interview up. I didn’t even save the tape.

So imagine my surprise when this bland nonentity resurfaced at the end of the 80s as the charismatic ultra-nationalist leader who was going to carve a Greater Serbia out of Yugoslavia even if it required “cleansing” this fantasy homeland of its many non-Serb inhabitants. But then, if I had met the young Hitler in Vienna before the First World War, I probably would not have spotted him as a future war criminal either. Sulky would-be artists can be trying, but most of them don’t turn into mass murderers.

Many potential monsters are born for every one who actually grows up to become a mass murderer: they are creatures of circumstance. And this has some bearing on the controversy that now engulfs the international court that was trying Milosevic on sixty-six charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in connection with the wars he sponsored in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

I don’t mean the “controversy” about how he died. Chief United Nations prosecutor Carla del Ponte got it exactly right when she told reporters: “You have the choice between normal, natural death and suicide.” Milosevic had long suffered from heart problems and high blood pressure, so a heart attack makes sense. He had been in prison for five years already and faced the certainty of spending the rest of his life behind bars, so suicide would also have made sense. What does not make sense is the allegation that he was poisoned by the international court’s henchmen because otherwise it would soon have had to admit that the charges were false and release him.

“My husband has been killed by the Hague tribunal,” his widow, Mirjana Markovic, told Belgrade’s Vecernje Novosti newspaper. “They did it because they were in trouble. Only thirty-seven hours remained, and they did not have anything to convict him.” But those “thirty-seven hours” only mean that Milosevic had already used up most of the 360 hours allotted to him to present his defence. That doesn’t seem an unreasonably brief amount of time.

The court had no motive to want him dead, for it had already heard enough evidence from his own former colleagues to ensure a conviction. The real controversy is about the inordinate length of the trial. Five years was a very long time — and in the end, Milosevic died before he could be convicted.

The mills of international justice grind exceedingly slowly, because the trials of senior political figures for crimes like genocide involve huge numbers of charges and mountains of evidence. In Milosevic’s case, the delays were compounded because the court let him conduct his own defence. But what was the alternative? Force him to accept court-appointed lawyers, pick a few of the simplest charges, and push the case through in six months?

That would have had no more credibility than the court that is now trying Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The obscure charge on which Saddam is being tried was chosen not for efficiency’s sake, but because to try him for any of his really big crimes, like the wars of aggression against Iran and Kuwait and the massacres that accompanied them, would have implicated the United States in one way or another. The point of that trial is to kill Saddam without delving into his complex relationship with Washington over the years.

The goal of genuine international courts like the one in The Hague is not to save us from mythical monsters by stringing them up. By the time they reach court, they are no longer dangerous. It is to expose in slow and painful detail how amoral political opportunism can lead quite ordinary people like Slobodan Milosevic to commit appalling crimes in the name of the state.

In Milosevic’s case, ninety-five percent of that job had been completed before he died. A conviction would have been nice, but it would not have changed the minds of his diehard supporters, and the rest of us already knew he was guilty of monstrous crimes. The point of the trial was to document and record the detailed evidence for those crimes, and it had already succeeded.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“My husband…time”; and “That would…years”)