February 14, 2002

The Trial
7 :1-6

On Tuesday, February 12, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (as the Hague Inquisition is officially known) began hearing the case IT-02-54, charging Slobodan Milosevic with 66 counts of most abhorrent crimes including mass murder, crimes against humanity and genocide. Milosevic stands accused of planning, organizing and conducting the wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo over the past ten years, as part of a "joint criminal enterprise" to create something called "Greater Serbia," a nation supposedly made up only of ethnic Serbs.

Western media have billed the process a milestone event in international justice, a reckoning for all the victims of Yugoslav wars, and the triumph of Western will to stop violence in the name of human rights.

Of course, it is nothing of the sort.


What it is about is rewriting history. As George Orwell pointed out, "Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." (1984) By trying, sentencing and imprisoning Milosevic, forces behind the Hague Inquisition can effectively redefine what happened over the past decade in the Balkans in a light most favorable to their actions and involvement. Having already assumed the roles of the Jury (as creators of the world's public opinion) and the Executioner (as bombers and occupiers of lands anywhere in the world), they now wish to be the Judge and complete the circle.

The mainstream media do not even bother to hide their gloating. The Independent proclaims the trial could usher a "New World Order." For Time, it is all about shaping world opinion, which is punctuated by claiming Milosevic is actually worse than Osama Bin Laden. The Guardian revels in the "faultless" proceedings by Carla Del Ponte and considers the trial a veritable paragon of international justice. The New York Times is skeptical not of the trial and the ICTY, but of the current regime's reluctance to commit to a permanent, world war crimes court. CNN's Christiane Amanpour has the look of pure enjoyment as she narrates the twisted "history" of Milosevic's role in the past decade, most of which comes from her own imagination.

Together with a deluge of wire and agency reports, all have two things in common: they all assume Milosevic's guilt, often by omitting "alleged" or "claimed" before listing the prosecution's accusations; and they all draw a parallel with the Nuremberg trials of the chief Nazis after World War Two, with the clear implication that Milosevic belongs in the same category as Hitler's henchmen.

Add to that the official histories taught in NATO countries, the Muslim-Croat part of Bosnia, Croatia, and  the NATO-occupied, Albanian-dominated Kosovo, blaming Milosevic exclusively for all the ills in the breakup of Yugoslavia; add the countless pictures of suffering refugees, burnt villages, exploding bombs and dying children, all attributed to Milosevic; add the desire of the people in Serbia to believe in Milosevic's guilt as a way to account for their own suffering and avoid collective guilt for crimes alleged so many times that people simply assume they must be true. It goes to show that history has already been rewritten de facto (in fact). Now it has to be done de jure (by law), so it can become official. After all, even Hitler and Stalin staged trials for their victims, early on in their rule. It would not do for the world's new masters to appear less, uh, proper than the two towering dictators of the 20th century.


The widespread assumption of guilt has largely neutralized the greatest problem of the Hague Inquisition: it has no basis for existence whatsoever. The UN charter does not allow for its formation. It has as much legitimacy as a raging lynch mob, no matter how well-funded, well-dressed and well-spoken it seems. This is fact, real and indisputable, no less truthful just because Milosevic has mentioned it in his own defense.

Even if the ICTY had legitimacy, it is by its nature unjust. An ad hoc "tribunal," it was created to "bring to justice" those responsible for crimes in the Balkans. So obviously, there have to have been some serious crimes, and someone had to be responsible for them. And the US officials that sponsored the ICTY's creation were pretty unequivocal about who they regarded as the sole culprit.

Furthermore, it is institutionally biased against the defendants. They are not even called "defendants", but "indictees" – a word any dictionary will confirm does not exist! They are supposed to prove their innocence without the benefit of a jury or access to the media, facing a panel of judges whose very legitimacy depends on finding them guilty, and who are paid from the same source as the prosecutors. The spokespersons for the prosecution and for the "tribunal" speak with the same voice so often, they are indistinguishable.

In just one infamous instance, during the first trial before the Inquisition, it was revealed that one of the prosecution's key witnesses was lying because he had been tortured. The "Tribunal" then returned the witness to his torturers, where he remains imprisoned even today. The discovery had no impact on the trial. In fact, when the defendant appealed the sentence, several new accusations were added to his docket and his sentence was actually lengthened. Franz Kafka could not have described it better.


In a world that obviously makes no logical sense whatsoever, what is one to make of the fact that in 1998, one of the top US diplomats in the Balkans described the Albanian separatist "army" (KLA/UCK) as "clearly a terrorist organization," especially in the light of the current "War on Terror"? Essentially, fighting US-backed terrorists is a war crime, but killing thousands of civilians while fighting anti-US terrorists is "fog of war"?!

What is one to make of Richard Holbrooke's account of Milosevic's behavior at the Dayton "negotiations" in 1995? Holbrooke does not hide his distaste for the Serbs, and his self-serving memoir (To End A War) is a remarkable study in Imperial arrogance, filled with descriptions of Holbrooke's immoral, illegal and downright despicable actions, from coordinating the ethnic cleansing of Serbs and orchestrating a NATO military intervention, to actually trying to cheat Milosevic at the negotiating table. Only three years later, Holbrooke was the one to set Milosevic up for another bombing over Kosovo. Yet for all that, his descriptions of Dayton make Milosevic appear downright saintly in comparison to Holbrooke himself, and other Balkans leaders.

Just read the part when Milosevic stepped in with a major concession – at the expense of the people he was forced by Holbrooke to represent (look that up, too) – to Muslim leader Izetbegovic's last-minute demand designed to wreck the talks. This not only saved the talks, but also saved Holbrooke and President Clinton from a major embarrassment by Izetbegovic. Ironically, major US media credited Izetbegovic for the talks' success.

Facts like these, however, don't get in the way of a good story, such as one that has been spun by the Inquisition's prosecutors for the past two days.


Obviously, no one who has been through the Wars of Yugoslav Succession (1991-95) or the Kosovo war (1998-99) can deny that combatants in those wars did some unspeakable things. Crimes did happen, only to be hijacked by propaganda and psychological warfare, whether by the Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian media, or the infinitely more powerful and influential CNN and its cohorts in the West.

For there to be any peace in what was once Yugoslavia, those who committed atrocities must be held responsible by both their victims and the nations on whose behalf they fought. That is not what is happening at The Hague right now. Instead, that responsibility is being projected on Milosevic as the individual, and the Serbian nation as the collective, scapegoat.

The real issues behind the conflict between former "brothers" in Yugoslavia will not be addressed, and will sink into the dark reaches of collective memory to haunt the children and grandchildren of today's temporarily placated generation. Just as the crimes of World War Two in the Balkans were covered up, twisted and manipulated, only to re-emerge in the 1990s and manifest themselves again in their most brutal form.

Without a doubt, those who committed crimes must be punished. Yet the Empire and its servants have no right to sit in judgment of anyone in the Balkans, save by the very force of arms with which they committed atrocities far greater than anything Milosevic is accused of. How many Serbs live in Croatia today? Kosovo? Muslim- and Croat-controlled parts of Bosnia? How can the bombers of Belgrade judge the bombers of Sarajevo? And that is just the Balkans; the rest of the planet offers countless examples of Empire's spotless credentials to be the world's voice of moral conscience.

Just ask Dresden, or Hiroshima.

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, many of which have been published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Thursday.


Archived Columns

The Trial

Exercises In Wishful Thinking

Ten Years in the Twilight Zone

Wastelands of Imperial Reality

Off to a Bad Start

Operation Enduring Stupidity

Balkans Christmas – All Year 'Round

A Trojan Horse in Belgrade

Where the Shadows Lie

Republic Day

Surrender in Kosovo

A False Choice for Kosovo

Death by Protectorate

Perverted Justice

The Meanings of Madness

Arrogance of Power

Reflections on Revolution

War Without End

Battle in the Balkans

Intersections of Fate

Macedonia's Tragedy Masquerading as Farce

A Day to Remember

The Serbian Standoff

Macedonia's Futile Surrender

Murdering Macedonia

Rambouillet Repeated?

Empire's Willing Servants

Kostunica's Choice

Betrayal in Belgrade

The Empire Shows Its Hand

The Return of Kings

Meditations On The Edge Of The Abyss


Terms of Betrayal

Presevo – A False Victory

The Balkans: Land of Delusions

Enemies at the Gates

ICG's Blueprint for Destruction

Kosovo: Between Death and Taxes

Madness in the Mountains: Montenegro's Looming Secession

A House Divided


Empire at the Gates

Macedonian Maelstrom

Pax Americana

The Fourth Balkan War

Mayhem in Macedonia

Surreal Realm

Santayana's Curse

The Croatian Conundrum

March of the Black Eagle

Showdown in Belgrade

Out of the Shadows

With a Grain of Salt

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

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