The wrong lessons

July 08, 2004

TRIALS OF former dictators are not so much about the law as about politics. This is not to say they can't be useful. But they're not really designed to dispense justice; they're designed to drive home a point.

In Baghdad, legal proceedings against Saddam Hussein are just getting under way. At The Hague, the prosecution has at last rested its case against Slobodan Milosevic, more than two years after arguments began. The coincidence in timing is fortunate, because the Milosevic case offers an instructive example - of what can go wrong in a war crimes trial.

Here's the set-up at The Hague: The world community, in its majesty, calls the murderous Serbian dictator to account. This acts as a warning to other authoritarians who might be tempted to emulate him, and presumably provides some measure of solace to his victims (or their survivors). Both are important goals, but probably the most crucial objective of the trial is to demonstrate to Serbs themselves the actual nature of the regime that took them repeatedly to war in the 1990s, and of the dark acts committed in their name.

The point is to lay open the full sordid history of that decade, and thus to disinfect Serbia of the virulent, hate-filled nationalism that gripped it after the fall of Communism. In this, however, the trial of Mr. Milosevic has been close to a complete failure.

Serbia has not been shamed or sobered by the painfully deliberate prosecution case. The trial is too far away, the judges (more or less) represent the victors in the deeply resented Kosovo war, and Mr. Milosevic has refused both to recognize the court's legitimacy and to be cowed by its power over him. If anything, his standing among ordinary Serbs has improved since his overthrow in a bloodless coup more than three years ago. He is standing up for himself, and for Serbia, and who in Belgrade would fail to appreciate that?

Last month, his unrepentant party made a strong showing in presidential elections; its candidate received the most votes in the first round of balloting, only to be defeated in the runoff.

Now Mr. Milosevic's health is failing. The court may force him to accept a lawyer, which could lower his visibility. But it may be too late to contain the damage. If his health worsens, and the trial has to be postponed, he will come out of it a hero.

The tribunal inadvertently provided Mr. Milosevic with a soapbox, and he was too smart not to take advantage of it. Mr. Hussein's prosecutors should take note.

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