Slobodan Milosevic is characterized in the obituaries as the “Butcher of the Balkans.” If that is the story you want to read about, please go to almost any other media outlet and read it again and again. Some are now suggesting that death is Milosevic’s final revenge, that he “ended up cheating history” by dying before judgment was passed. But the world has already passed judgment on Milosevic and what is being cheated by his death is history itself.
What the corporate media overwhelmingly ignores in Milosevic’s death is what they ignored in his life as well–his intimate knowledge of US war crimes in Yugoslavia. While Milosevic was undoubtedly a war criminal who deserved to be tried for his crimes, he was also the only man in the unique position of being able to expose and detail the full extent of the US role in the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In fact, that is precisely what he was fighting to do at his war crimes trial when he died.
Because of the rule of victors’ justice in the ad hoc tribunal system (a poor and unfair substitute for a true international court), Milosevic’s case would have been the only international trial to potentially expose the details of the illegal, US-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia for 78 days in 1999. While the US-backed court consistently tried to limit Milosevic’s right to speak, stripping him of his right to self-representation, Milosevic battled regularly to raise US war crimes. Sadly, with Milosevic will likely die the last hope the victims of these crimes in Yugoslavia had of getting their day (if it could even be called that) in court–a tragic and unjust reality to begin with–that speaks volumes about the twisted state of international justice.
Milosevic’s cause, regardless of what one thinks of it, was a casualty of 9/11–an event that relegated him and his trial to the annals of history before it was even over. Most people in the world–with the exception of those in the Balkans where the proceedings were broadcast live, daily–probably didn’t even know Milosevic was still on trial in the Hague. It became an obscure sideshow to the blood and gore unfolding constantly on the international stage.
Milosevic’s death means that those who bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days beginning 7 years ago this month, killing thousands, will be, once and for all protected from any public scrutiny for their crimes. However opportunistic Milosevic may have been, he would have been one of the few people to appear at the Hague that could have–and would have–laid out these crimes in great detail. Now, there is almost certain to be no condemnation of the US bombing of Radio Television Serbia, killing 16 media workers, the cluster bombing of the Nis marketplace, shredding human beings into meat, the use of depleted uranium munitions and the targeting of petrochemical plants causing toxic and chemical waste to pour into the Danube River. There will be no condemnation of the bombing of Albanian refugees by the US or the deliberate targeting of a civilian passenger train or the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Milosevic also would have discussed how the US supports a regime in Kosovo that has systematically expelled Serbs, Romas and other ethnic minorities from their homes and burnt down scores of churches. He would have discussed the role of the US in funding and arming the Kosovo Liberation Army, which operates like a death squad and how the new prime minister of Kosovo, Agim Ceku, is a US-trained war criminal who gained infamy in both the Bosnian war and the 1999 Kosovo conflict. And Milosevic would have talked of the US interference in the Yugoslav elections in 2000 and the ultimate neoliberal takeover that was the aim of Clinton’s sanctions and 78 days of bombing. In reality, it would have fallen on deaf ears, but it would have been stated for the record.
It is ironic that Milosevic’s last legal battle was an attempt to compel his old friend turned nemesis Bill Clinton to testify at his trial. If successful, Milosevic would have grilled the man who was US president through the entire Yugoslav war in what would have been a fiery direct examination. Clinton and Milosevic were once pals who talked collective strategy in the 1990s. Milosevic had many damning stories to tell and, without a doubt, uncomfortable questions to ask Clinton. The judges in Milosevic’s case clearly worked to keep those moments from ever happening and the US government made clear its forceful opposition to such subpoenas of US officials, even considering invading a country that would put a US official on trial. With or without Clinton, Milosevic’s defense would have brought to light some serious documentation of US war crimes and he died, muzzled, before he really got started.
Little attention, therefore, has been paid to Milosevic’s long-term efforts–which predated 9/11, the 1999 NATO bombing and his own trial–to expose the presence of al Qaeda in the Balkans–from Bosnia to Kosovo. With 9/11, Milosevic’s talk of al Qaeda was easily dismissed as laughable, pathetic opportunism. But those who followed Milosevic’s career and more importantly the events of the 1990s in Yugoslavia know it was none of those. Those allegations were based on true events the US does not want discussed in an international court. Following the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, many Mujahadeen eventually turned their sights on Yugoslavia where they went to fight alongside the Bosnian Muslims against the Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. Once again, the US and bin Laden were on the same team. To this day there are reports of training camps in Bosnia, which remains under occupation. It is also a likely training ground for future blowback.
In his opening statement, Milosevic alluded to some of the information he would introduce during his defense. “In 1998 when [Clinton envoy Richard] Holbrooke visited us in Belgrade, we told him the information we had at our disposal, that in Northern Albania the KLA is being aided by Osama bin Laden, that he was arming, training, and preparing the members of this terrorist organisation in Albania. However, they decided to cooperate with the KLA and indirectly, therefore, with bin Laden, although before that he had bombed the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania [and] had already declared war.” Milosevic concluded that “one day all this will have to come to light, these links.”
That, however, is unlikely and more so now that Milosevic is dead.
To be sure, there will never be indictments of these US war criminals at the Hague: Bill Clinton, Madeline Albright, Jamie Rubin, William Cohen, Sandy Berger, Richard Holbrooke and Wesley Clark. For many of Serbia’s victims of US war crimes, Milosevic’s trial was a “Hail Mary” pass, as awful of an historical irony as that is, aimed at someone recognizing their forgotten suffering.
It is a sad testimony to the state of international jurisprudence that after many attempts to find justice, the only hope for US victims in the Yugoslavia wars was the trial defense of a man many of those same victims despised. If there was an independent international court that was recognized and respected by the US, those responsible for bombing Yugoslavia would have been alongside Slobodan Milosevic in the docks these past years instead of having their responsibility being buried with him.
JEREMY SCAHILL is an independent journalist who spent extensive time reporting from Yugoslavia, including covering the 1999 US-led NATO bombing from the ground. The night Milosevic was arrested in Belgrade, Scahill was beaten by the former president’s supporters outside Milosevic’s residence. He has also reported from Milosevic’s trial in the Hague. Scahill is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. He can be reached at jeremy(at)democracynow.org