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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 15:41 GMT
Where now for international justice?
Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague
Milosevic: Being tried for crimes against his own people
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By the BBC's Catherine Utley

The trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague marks a turning point in the concept of international justice.

Never before has a former head of state been held personally accountable before an international tribunal for crimes against his own people.

The Nuremburg trials, established after World War II to prosecute the Nazi leadership, laid down for the first time that international criminal justice could put on trial leaders and former leaders previously thought to have state immunity.

It will be perceived as being a genuine act of justice rather than a Nato-inspired court

Geoffrey Robertson,
Human rights lawyer
But until Slobodan Milosevic appeared in The Hague, no head of state had been put on trial for crimes against his own people.

So, how well is the tribunal functioning?

Alex Boraine, former co-chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, says in the main it is working well, but there are problems:

"Denial is still very, very uppermost in Serbia. They find it extraordinarily difficult to come to terms with the fact that they have caused such hardship and havoc and worse.

"So Milosevic taking the stand and making that extremely long introductory speech and cross-examining witnesses, has become almost more of a hero in Serbia than he was before."

Milosevic supporters protest against his extradition
Many Serbs see Milosevic as a hero
But the eminent British human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, believes that Mr Milosevic's decision to argue his case before the court in person has ensured that the eventual outcome cannot be dismissed as victors' justice.

"If I had been advising Milosevic as to how you do the worst to international criminal justice, I would have said just stay in your prison cell. Ignore the court.

"If Milosevic had ignored it, then I don't think anyone would have taken much notice of it. Its judgements would not have emerged from a genuine adversary procedure."

Looking forward

The aim of international justice, however, is broader than simply retribution for the perpetrators of crimes.

It is also about reconciliation for the people against whom crimes have been committed.

I think it's a question of doing what you can, and be true to justice and to a measure of reconciliation

Alex Boraine,
Co-Chairman South African truth commission
Peggy Hicks of the International Human Rights Law Group in New York says the Hague tribunal has so far failed to do enough to bring its message home to the people of the Balkans.

"They need to put more resources into educating people within former Yugoslavia as to the work of the tribunal and its impartiality."

International tribunals are not, of course, the only way of dealing with crimes against humanity.

There are also non-judicial truth and reconciliation commissions, such as the one set up in post-apartheid South Africa.

Alex Boraine, who was co-chairman of that commission, says: "I feel quite strongly that one has to re-define justice, if you like... so that both perpetrator and victim are seen together in the same context.

Former South African President PW Botha
PW Botha refused to appear before the truth commission
"This means that you are looking in a much more holistic way in terms of justice and truth, reconciliation, reparation and institutional reform, so that you are looking backwards and forwards."

Mr Boraine says the South African model achieved a "limited amount of justice", but had many pluses.

"I think that the fact that the proceedings were in public, that both perpetrators and victims had an opportunity to tell their story, we got far more truth, frankly, out of the perpetrators and they validated many of the witnesses that came as victims.

"I think it's a question of doing what you can and be true to justice and to a measure of reconciliation."

World's role

Some national governments argue that they should be allowed to try their own war criminals internally.

Indonesia, for example, has said it will try those who have allegedly committed crimes in East Timor, and Camobodia says it is capable of dealing with the Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot
Pol Pot: Blamed for the death of millions
But Geoffrey Robertson is highly sceptical that justice will be achieved in either case without international help:

"It remains to be seen whether Indonesia has the judge-power, the resources, to put on trial General Wiranto and others.

"If there isn't, then clearly they do need international assistance - as is being given to Sierra Leone."

"As for Cambodia, the record is appalling. Pol Pot is now dead, but his lieutenants are very much alive... Hun Sen, who is the leader of Cambodia, has shown no interest, real genuine interest, in bringing them to justice."

World court

The next most likely stage in the future of international criminal justice is the establishment - expected by the end of this year - of a fully independent international criminal court.

We need to make sure that the mechanisms that we use are not simply about prosecuting past crimes

Peggy Hicks,
International Human Rights Law Group
Fifty-two countries have so far ratified the treaty under which the court would be set up, although the United States is opposing it.

How likely is it, though, that the court will be genuinely independent of big power politics? Peggy Hicks is optimistic:

"There has been a huge effort to ensure that this court learns from the process - that's one of the great things the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia have contributed."

But Alex Boraine is unhappy the Americans will not be taking part:

I would have thought that the Americans would have gone on their knees and been very grateful that there is such a thing as an international court

Alex Boraine
"Yet again we have this major power not willing to put its energy at the disposal of international justice - particularly at a time when we are talking about international justice versus terrorism and so on."

So where does international justice go from here?

Peggy Hicks says one of the most important things we have learned is the need to take a "holistic approach".

"We need to deal with the past while building for the future.

"So we need to make sure that the mechanisms that we use are not simply about prosecuting past crimes, but that we look at how we can build societies through justice that affects people on the ground.

"That means re-building and creating new justice systems in the countries which have been affected."

See also:

11 Mar 02 | Africa
Sankoh murder trial begins
14 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesia begins landmark trial
13 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Cambodia rejects UN tribunal demands
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