Global Policy Forum

Justice, Not a Political Platform, for Milosevic


By Judith Armatta

International Herald Tribune
October 8, 2004

The trial of Slobodan Milosevic before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has reached a standoff, where the will of the UN-established court is pitted against the will of one individual, the accused. The tribunal, faced with medical opinions that Milosevic's health will not allow him to continue representing himself, appointed counsel for his defense. The accused refuses to communicate with counsel or assist in selecting and securing witnesses or developing a defense strategy, since he seeks not to defend himself but to use the trial as a platform to advance his political agenda.

As he has consistently maintained, he does not recognize the legitimacy of the tribunal but will use whatever opportunity is provided to make his political case to the public. Representation by counsel will not allow him to do that. Nearly half the witnesses initially scheduled to testify on his behalf have followed his example by refusing to appear in court if Milosevic is not allowed to represent himself.

While this impasse is relatively new on the stage of international justice, it is a harbinger of what will come as other former political and military leaders are called to account for serious violations of international humanitarian law. The trend, in fact, has already begun - in another case at the Yugoslavia tribunal, as well as in cases before the Rwanda tribunal and the special court for Sierra Leone. In each of these cases, the accused have challenged the authority of the courts and have refused to abide by their rules, refusing to participate unless the proceedings be conducted in a manner they approve.

Thus far, the courts have refused to be hijacked or blackmailed. They have stood firm, granting the accused all rights necessary to have a fair trial. Where the accused have refused to exercise those rights in accordance with court rules and procedure - refusing to attend court, for example, or to communicate with defense counsel - the courts have made it clear that the proceedings will continue. To do otherwise is to let the accused dictate the terms under which they will answer very serious charges. It is also to ignore other interests at stake in trials for violations of international humanitarian law.

The Yugoslav tribunal was duly constituted by the UN Security Council and its legitimacy affirmed in the case against Dusan Tadic, whose 1997 conviction on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity was the tribunal's first. As a legitimate court, it is charged with seeing justice done for the heinous crimes, including genocide, committed throughout the territory of the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Its fundamental responsibility, as that of all courts, is to justice. An essential element of justice in the criminal context is a fair and expeditious trial for the accused, even if he wants something different.

Under tribunal rules, a defense can indeed be made either through counsel or by oneself. In all circumstances, however, the court has an overriding duty to ensure that the trial is fair, that justice is done and that the integrity of the process is upheld. This is what is meant by the "rule of law."

The court is also charged with protecting other interests involved in a criminal trial besides those of the accused, i.e. the interests of the public and victims in seeing justice done. While this is not to prejudge Milosevic as guilty, they, too, have an interest in a fair and expeditious trial.

Indeed, legitimate defenses are available to Milosevic. Witnesses who can testify on those issues owe it to the accused, the public and the victims to participate in the trial. Only a full hearing of all the evidence and defenses can lead to a just resolution. It is incumbent on this tribunal to stand up to Milosevic, assert its authority and bring the world one step closer to the rule of law.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on International Criminal Tribunals and Special Courts
More Information on the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia
More Information on the Trial of Slobodan Milosevic


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