Justice on trial

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 2001, 12:00am

Members of the Serbian Government have so far given a series of fairly mixed and ambiguous signals over whether former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic will face trial for war crimes. But most members of the country's new administration certainly seem determined that any trial should take place on Serbian soil, rather than at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Comments made in Washington by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic that evidence has been gathered against the former president and that Milosevic will be indicted 'within two weeks' will be widely welcomed, as will the Prime Minister's statement that Belgrade will 'co-operate' with the International Criminal Tribunal; and yet the Prime Minister did not specify what form that co-operation will take. It seems likely that he is still reluctant to allow Milosevic to be tried as a war criminal outside Serbia's borders.

This stance contrasts with that of the country's Justice Minister, Vladan Batic, who said on Friday that 'sooner or later' Milosevic and other alleged war criminals will have to be handed over to the United Nations' court.

Meanwhile, the position of United Nations prosecutor Darla del Ponte is clear: Slobodan Milosevic must stand trial in The Hague. And there are good reasons why this must be the case.

A trial in Belgrade is unlikely to satisfy anyone, simply because it will be perceived as lacking neutrality. One of the salient reasons for holding such a trial in a neutral location is to remove much of the inflamed passion that will certainly be aroused. Impartiality would be hard to establish if the trial judges were Serbian. Moreover, those judges who served during Milosevic's rule were almost all political appointees. Any judges appointed by the new administration will be seen in the same light. Furthermore, a trial in Belgrade would be highly likely to infuriate the authorities in Sarajevo and Zagreb who are co-operating with the tribunal. Indeed, Croatia has even altered its constitution to allow the extradition of its citizens - Belgrade would need to do the same before Milosevic could stand trial in The Hague.

Serbia's problem is that handing Milosevic to the United Nations will be unpopular with the electorate, many of whom see the international court as politically influenced, particularly by the United States. For this reason, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica argues such an extradition would destabilise the fledgling democracy. The international community is unlikely to be satisfied with anything less, however. And rightly so.