Did Milosevic or His Accusers "Cheat Justice"? The Show Trial That Went Wrong


“It’s hard not to feel that by dying in his cell, Slobodan Milosevic finally succeeded in his determined effort to cheat justice.”

Thus the opening sentence of a New York Times editorial, Tuesday March 14. The editorial cited without comment Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the United Nations tribunal, who told an Italian interviewer that “the death of Milosevic represents for me a total defeat.”

The editorial ended with words of praise for the high purpose of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) established by the U.N. Security Council in 1994.

In fact Milosevic’s death in his cell from a heart attack spared Del Ponte and the Court (itself a drumhead tribunal set up by the United States with no proper foundation under international law or treaty) the ongoing embarrassment of a proceeding where Milosevic had made a very strong showing against the phalanx of prosecutors, hearsay witnesses and prejudiced judges marshaled against him. Until his death, “total defeat” had been the prospect facing Del Ponte, not Milosevic, though she presumably felt justifiably confident –based on their record of prejudiced rulings against Milosevic — that the judges would never let her down.

There are now charges and countercharges about poisons and self-medications. Milosevic’s son says his father was murdered. The embarrassed Court claims Milosevic somehow did himself in by tampering with his medicines. But no one contests the fact that Milosevic asked for treatment in Moscow–the Russians promised to return him to the Hague– and the Court refused permission. As the tag from the poet A.H.Clough goes, “Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive Officiously to keep alive”.

The trial had been going badly from the point of view of the prosecution (which included the judges) for most of its incredible duration. Here is what Neil Clark, a Balkans specialist, wrote in the Guardian newspaper of London, in 2003,

It is two years today that the trial of Slobodan Milosevic opened at The Hague. The chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, was triumphant as she announced the 66 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity and genocide that the former Yugoslavian president was charged with. CNN was among those who called it ‘the most important trial since Nuremburg’ as the prosecution outlined the ‘crimes of medieval savagery’ allegedly committed by the ‘butcher of Belgrade.’

But since those heady days, things have gone horribly wrong for Ms. Del Ponte. The charges relating to the war in Kosovo were expected to be the strongest part of her case. But not only has the prosecution signally failed to prove Milosevic’s personal responsibility for atrocities committed on the ground, the nature and extent of the atrocities themselves has also been called into question…

“When it came to the indictments involving the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, the prosecution fared little better. In the case of the worst massacre with which Milosevic has been accused of complicity–of between 2,000 and 4,000 men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995–Del Ponte’s team have produced nothing to challenge the verdict of the five-year inquiry commissioned by the Dutch government–that there was ‘no proof that orders for the slaughter came from Serb political leaders in Belgrade.’

Coverage of the trial in the US was virtually non-existent, though there was a brief spotlight on what was actually going on when it was reported here that Wesley Clark’s testimony in court was subject to US censorship. Writing in the British Spectator last November John Laughland painted a trenchant portrait of the kangaroo proceedings, then four years old:

Even though the former Yugoslav head of state has always pleaded his innocence, producing scores of witnesses to prove it, the trial is still not due to end until 2010. With the budget of The Hague tribunal running at nearly $300 million a year, this is doubtless a comfortable sinecure for the lawyers involved, most of whom had pretty unsuccessful careers at home. But such a long trial is by definition a travesty of justice: the Nuremberg trials lasted just over ten months, from 20 November 1945 to 30 September 1946.

…The trial has heard more than 100 prosecution witnesses, and not a single one has testified that Milosevic ordered war crimes. On the contrary: only last Tuesday, a Muslim captain in the Yugoslav army testified that no one in his unit had ever committed systematic harassment of Albanian civilians in Kosovo, and that he had never heard of any other unit doing so either. On 9 November the former head of security in the Yugoslav army, General Geza Farkas, an ethnic Hungarian, testified that all Yugoslav soldiers in Kosovo were handed a document explaining international humanitarian law, and that they were ordered to disobey any orders which violated it. What a contrast with US army practice!

Instead, what has emerged from the trial to the general indifference of the world’s media is that the Serbs were subject to horrendous provocations. …

In any proper court of law, the Milosevic trial would have collapsed long ago; for instance, when the previous presiding judge, Sir Richard May, unexpectedly died in July 2004. Since there are only three judges, this is equivalent to the sudden disappearance of four jurors, which would cause a criminal trial in this country to be abandoned or restarted. So determined, however, are the judges to obtain a conviction of their prize defendant that they have even ruled that he can be tried in absentia if he is too ill to defend himself in court. The judges themselves admitted that their ruling had no precedent in law, but legality has never bothered them much: ever complicit with the prosecutor, they allowed the addition of new indictments after Milosevic’s transferral to The Hague in 2001, even though this violates the key tenet of extradition law that a defendant may not be tried for charges other than those for which he was originally extradited.

Transparency is not of much interest to the judges either: when I asked to see the medical evidence which, they claimed, showed that Milosevic was too sick to defend himself but not so sick that the trial should be abandoned, I was told it was confidential. And when on Tuesday Milosevic pleaded that he was too sick to continue, presiding judge Patrick Robinson simply barked, ‘Are you deaf? I told you to call the next witness.’

Memory of NATO’s onslaught on the former Yugoslavia has faded. But perhaps next weekend, when rallies across the world signal the third anniversary of the US onslaught on Iraq, some speakers will take the occasion of Milosevic’s court-assisted demise to remind their audiences that the legal, military and journalistic banditry that have accompanied the Iraq enterprise from the start were all field-tested in the late 1990s in the Balkans, as weekly stories in CounterPunch laid out in detail. Later Jeffrey St Clair and I put together a chronicle of those stories. This week, as Milosevic and the onslaught on the former Yugoslavia return to the front pages among predictable obfuscation, we run some relevant extracts here from Imperial Crusades. These days we have the Neo-Cons’ war. Back then we had the Liberals’ War. There’s continuity. The lying didn’t start with Judy Miller nor the saber-rattling with Bill Kristol.
March 6, 1999
The Laptop Bombardiers


Strange are the ways of men! It feels like only yesterday that the New York Times was denouncing President Bill as a moral midget, deserving of the harshest reprobation for fondling Monica Lewinsky’s breasts. And today here’s the New York Times doling out measured praise to the same president for blowing little children in pieces. The Times last Thursday had pictures of those dead refugees on its cover, bombed by one of NATO’s aviators. Editorial page editor Howell Raines staked out the Times official view that “For now, NATO must sustain and intensify the bombing.” What a weird guy Raines must be. Kiss Monica’s tits and he goes crazy. Bomb peasants and he shouts for more. Maybe some corner of Clinton’s brain reckons that bombs on Serbia will extinguish Monica Lewinsky from popular memory. But what man of mature judgement and compassion would not prefer to be remembered by the Starr report than by bomb craters and dead bodies? Many people thought Clinton would be the first president who would somehow prefer Starr’s volume as his epitaph, however embarrassing. But no. Like all the others he wants craters and corpses as his requiem.

Being a peacenik is definitely passe’. Liberals are learning once again–did they ever truly forget–that it’s fun to be a warmonger and cheer the high explosive as it falls. After suffering indigestion towards the end of the Vietnam affair, they got the taste for war again in the mid-1990s, with Bosnia. They became the “laptop bombardiers,” an apt phrase coined by Simon Jenkins in The Spectator in 1995. Back then, there wasn’t a week, for months on end, that Anthony Lewis didn’t call for the bombardment of Serbia.

Last week I ran across an interesting piece by an Indian, Lt General Satish Nambiar who had been First Force Commissioner and Head of Mission of the United Nations force deployed in the former Yugoslavia from March 1992 to March 1993. He was writing in an Indian journal. “Portraying the Serbs as evil and everybody else as good was not only counterproductive but dishonest,” the general writes. “According to my experience all sides were guilty but only the Serbs would admit that they were no angels while the others would insist that they were.” Nambiar says accurately that there were plenty of chances of agreement on a Bosnian settlement in the mid-1990s but the Americans always nixed them. There was the Lisbon plan and then the Vance-Owen plan, both not so different from the final Dayton plan. But the trouble was that the US, amid the furious screams of the liberals, refused to admit the Serbs had legitimate grievances and rights.

In Britain there was a coalition running from Margaret Thatcher to the Laborite New Statesman in favor of bombing the Serbs. Ken Livingston, the pinko firebrand of London, bellowed for bombs. So did the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet (my sister-in-law’s wry description of him), Michael Ignatieff. In this country the laptop bombardiers crossed from the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which likes to bomb anythingto William Safire, to Anthony Lewis, to the Democratic Socialists of America. The worst offender was the press, which carefully ignored detailed accounts of how the Bosnian Muslims were manipulating western opinion most notoriously by almost certainly lobbing a missile in to a marketplace filled with their own people. When the Croats ethnically cleansed the Krajina of hundreds of thousands of Serbs–the biggest such cleansing in the Balkans since World War II–with direction from US military and CIA officer, reporters and commentators mostly looked the other way or actually cheered. “The Serbs Asked For It,” exulted the headline on a piece in the Los Angeles Times by pundit William Pfaff.

Monitors for the European Union prepared a report on the Croat atrocities, and though it was confidential, Robert Fisk of the London Independent was able to get a copy. “Evidence of atrocities; an average of six corpses a day, continue to emerge…the corpses–some fresh, some decomposed–are mainly of old men. Many have been shot in the back of the head or had throats slit, others have been mutilated…Serbian homes and lands continue to be looted. The crimes have been perpetrated by the HV (Croatian Army) the CR (Croatian Police) and CR civilians. There have been no observed attempts to stop it and the indications point to a scorched earth policy.”

If American journalists had bothered to report this, then perhaps public opinion would have been prepared for the notion that there are no innocent political players in the Balkans. The better informed the people are the harder it is to demagogue them with the idea that the best way forward now is–to get back to Howell Raines and that New York Times editorial to “sustain and intensify the bombing.” But Bosnia, back in the middle 1990s, rode on a hysteria that was never properly confronted and now the price is being paid, with contemptible opportunists like Senator John McCain shouting for “lights out in Belgrade” (why doesn’t McCain have the guts to emulate John Glen, get assigned to a bombing crew and go strafe refugees in Kosovo.) But McCain is more than matched by Democrats like Senator Carl Levin, or by that brass-lunged fraud from Vermont, Bernard Sanders, “socialist progressive,” who has endorsed Clinton’s bombs.

Well over two-thirds of the Democrats in the House are cheering the bombs, and senatorial liberals like Barbara Boxer are discovering the joys of war. “I never believed I’d go back and vote on air strikes.” she marveled in an article in the Boston Globe for March 31. These days, to get a dose of common sense, you have to go over the Republican side of the aisle and listen to people like Rep Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania who made a terrific speech in Congress on April 12, reporting on his contacts with members of the Russian Duma (where Weldon has many friends), endorsing their idea that Russia should pledge that Milosevic will abide by the Rambouillet accords on condition that an international peace-keeping force moves into Kosovo, devoid of any personnel from nations now bombing Serbia. Follow this carefully, because the exact nature of such a force is what’s causing bombs to fall on civilians in Belgrade and Kosovo. Remember that Milosevic agreed to virtually everything on the table at the Rambouilett meeting, with two exceptions. For him the status of Kosovo as part of Serbia was non-negotiable, and he wouldn’t agree to the stationing of NATO forces on Yugoslav soil, which does after all include Kosovo. But it’s clear enough that a solution could have been found. As Stephen Erlanger reported in the New York Times on April 8, the Serbian Parliament, before the bombing started, accepted the idea of a UN force to monitor a political settlement there. And it’s clear that the notion of an Albanian autonomous region withing Serbian Kosovo was negotiable. After all, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece–to name only three–and also the US have pronounced themselves opposed to the idea of a greater Albania, which is what an independent Kosovo would presage. It’s plain enough that the US and its NATO subordinates wanted a confrontation and ultimately forced it. It’s also clear that increasingly vocal and explicit charges by the Russians that the KLA was supplied by the Germans and the CIA have merit. The KLA itself was roundly denounced–before the bombings–in the London Times, as a Maoist gang fueled by heroin trafficking. (This is standard operating procedure for a CIA operation, as any scrutiny of recent histories of Afghanistan, or south-east Asia will attest.)

So the NATO bombs began to fall and, exactly as could have been predicted, the Serbian brutalities in Kosovo escalated and the tidal wave of refugees began. Everything has gone according the script. NATO bombs destroying Serbian civilian infrastructure: power plants, sewage treatment, electricity and gas and oil supplies. Everything that’s hit is hastily described by NATO spokesmen as “dual purpose,” (i.e., possibly also for Serb military use) unless it’s obvious to all that only peasants, with no conceivable “dual purposes” have been blasted to bits. Wednesday last saw the mad NATO supreme commander, Wesley Clark, utter his most deliberate and obvious lie to date, when he said that “There was a military convoy and a refugee convoy. We struck the Serb convoy and we have very strong evidence that the Serbs then retaliated by attacking the column of refugees.” By the next day it became clear that there was no “Serb convoy,” no “very strong evidence” and that an Albanian column of refugees on tractors had been killed by NATO bombers.
May 21, 1999
Thomas Friedman: The Maddest Dog


Liberals and social democrats who came of age politically amid protest against the war in Vietnam now talk in exactly the same phrases as did those Kennedy liberals back in the 1960s about the crusade that required planes, helicopters, Special Forces, troops, B-52 raids, the Phoenix program, My Lai and ultimately two million dead people. Listen to The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, the maddest dog in the war chorus: “Only when [the Serbs] conclude that their nationalist fantasies have brought them to a very dark and lonely corner will they change. The Balkans don’t need a new Serbian leader, they need a new Serbian ethic that understands how to live in 21st century Europe. NATO can’t produce that transformation. But by intensifying the bombing and intensifying the diplomacy, it can create the conditions in which that transformation might begin. Stay the course.” Here in the US we’re having to redraw the political maps. Leftist opponents of the war, such as ourselves now march shoulder to shoulder with Chuck Colson, Barry Farber, Don Feder, Bob Grant, Bob Novak, Arriana Huffington, A.M. Rosenthal, Charles Krauthammer, Edward Luttwak, Oliver North, Joe Sobran and the Pope. We never thought we’d ever be on the same side as Don Feder, a fierce right-winger who writes columns for the Boston Herald. We’ll say this for right-wing columnists like Novak or Feder: when they turn against a war, they do it right. In one column Bob Novak lashed out at NATO, excoriating liberal warmongers and reaching back in literary history to the social democrat H.G. Welles’ Shape of Things to Come, where Britain is liberated from enemy occupation by an international armada. Novak also evoked Sumner Welles, FDR’s Secretary of State, who thought bombers should be the weapon of an an international police force.

The most useful parable about progressives is that offered by Bernard Sanders, self-styled “socialist progressive independent” Rep from Vermont. Sanders owes his political career to rage against the Vietnam war among radicals, many of whom moved into the state in the early 1970s. The years rolled by. He grew older. He supported sanctions against Iraq which killed over a million Iraqis, many of them children. Then he voted in favor of this war. He did it once, he did it twice and on April 28, he did it again. This was the astounding 213-213 tie vote, which meant that the House of Representatives repudiated the war on Serbia launched by Clinton in violation of Article One of the US Constitution which reserves war-making powers to Congress. So if the “socialist-progressive”Sanders, who owes his entire career to antiwar sentiment, had not voted for the NATO bombers, the result would have been even more dramatic, a straight majority for the coalition of Republicans and radical Democrats such as Dennis Kucinich, Cynthia McKinney, Barbara Lee, Pete Stark and a handful of others.

June 3, 1999
The Set-Up

By ALEXANDER COCKBURN and Jeffrey St. Clair

The deal brokered by NATO’s errand boy Chernomyrdin on June 2 was virtually identical to that offered by Milosevic to NATO–before the bombing started. The sole purpose of the bombing was to demonstrate to Serbia and to the world NATO’s capacity to bomb, thus killing nearly 2,000 civilians, destroying much of Serbia’s infrastructure, prompting the forced expulsion and flight of around a million Kosovars. Wars have been triggered by the frailest of excuses and prolonged on the slightest of rationales, but the Cowards’ War, as Nicholas von Hoffman aptly christened it, is hard to beat for the effrontery of its supposed rationales. The Rambouillet negotiations lasted from February 6 to February 23. The so-called “contact group” of NATO powers–US, Germany, France, Italy and UK–pushed for Kosovar autonomy, guaranteed by the presence of NATO troops. Kept unrevealed at the time was a secret Appendix B to the deal presented to NATO on the final day. Not only were NATO troops to occupy Kosovo, but NATO troops were to have the right to “free and unrestricted passage and unimpeded access throughout the FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia)….This shall include, but not be limited to, the right of bivouac, maneuver, billet and utilization of any areas or facilities as required for support, training, and operations.” This language comes in Article 8 of NATO’s secret demand in Appendix B. Article 10 allowed NATO cost-free use of all Yugoslav streets, airports and ports. In other words NATO was insisting that Yugoslavia –i.e. Serbia–surrender sovereignty. In other words NATO was setting impossible conditions, certain that Milosevic and indeed every Serb would find them impossible to accept. It seems a senior State Department official boasted of this at the time in deep back briefings of US reporters, saying that the US “had deliberately set the bar higher than the Serbs could accept” and that “they need some bombing and that’s what they’re going to get.”

The final offer of the Serbs was for Kosovar autonomy, to be guaranteed by a UN force with a Russian component. A NATO presence in Serbia was unacceptable. The NATO powers rejected this. Serbia refused to sign the Rambouillet agreement and so did the Kosovars, until forced to by NATO powers on March 18. On March 24 the bombing began. On June 2 the deal agreed to by Milosevic and the Serb parliament was for a UN force with a Russian component, plus a NATO force, plus Kosovar autonomy within the Yugoslav federation. The unstated agenda seems to be the partitioning of Kosovo. The KLA will be “demilitarized” and Yugoslav troops allowed at some point to return in limited numbers to Kosovo. No international force either under UN or NATO auspices will enter Serbia. The Kosovar refugees will be able to return, but that was never a sticking point so far as Milosevic was concerned. NATO forced a war and ended up with essentially the deal that could have been signed in late February. There will be some NATO helmets alongside the UN blue helmets in Kosovo, but only after a Cowards War would this be called victory.
June 10, 1999
The Liberals’ War

By ALEXANDER COCKBURN and Jeffrey St Clair

This was the Cowards’ War, bombing a country for two and a half months from 30,000 feet. It was the Liberals’ War waged by social democracy’s best and brightest, intent on proving once again that wars can be fought with the best and most virtuous of intentions: the companion volume to Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” turns out to be “It Takes An Air Force,” though Bill will no doubt claim one day it wasn’t his idea and he only partly went along with Sandy Berger, Strobe Talbott and Madeleine Albright because he wanted to “preserve my political viability”, the words he used in his famous draft-dodging shuffle in the Vietnam era.

Just as Social Democratic parties across Europe voted for war in 1914, so did they again in 1999. In Britain social democrats rallied to the pipsqueak bombardier, Tony Blair. There were honorable exceptions: Tony Benn and Yorkshire Labor Member of Parliament Alice Mahon who went to Belgrade and to Novi Sad and stood on the bridge with–as she later described–twelve nationalities including Albanians, defying NATO’s bombers. Another fine Labor MP, Tam Dyell, was a spirited opponent. So was Harold Pinter, whose fine denunciation we excerpted in a recent CounterPunch. So was our friend Tariq Ali, a veteran of the Sixties’ anti-Vietnam War campaigns. The two leading liberal papers, The Observer and The Guardian, both favored the war. In France most intellectuals fell into line behind NATO, though once again there were exceptions, notably Regis Debray, who went to Belgrade and Kosovo and wrote a fine denunciation which Le Monde put on its front page. Debray was then savaged by France’s liberal intellectuals, including a vitriolic assault in Liberation.

In Germany there was increasing division, even in the Social Democratic Party. After Economics Minister Oskar Lafontaine resigned rather than support the war, he also quit as leader of the Party. Though chancellor Schroeder ran for this position unopposed, fully 30 percent of the delegates at a special Social Democratic Party convention voted against him. There was also great dissension among the Greens against the conduct of foreign Minister Joscha Fischer. In Italy the resistance was strongest. There was a demonstration of 130,000 in Rome in late May, with the red banners of the Rifundazione Party of leftists paired bravely with the white banners of the Catholic boy scouts. The famous leftist Rosanna Rosanda appealed publicly in Il Manifesto for Italian soldiers to desert, if required to fight in Yugoslavia. She received much public support. The pope flayed the war in his Easter Greeting, which was dropped from Britain’s broadcasts. The pope described NATO’s bombing as an “act of diabolical retribution”. From a Pope what stronger words could come? Here in the US the war found almost all Democrats in Congress marshaled for war. The exceptions were 26 Democrats in the House, led by Dennis Kucinich of Ohio–himself of Irish-Croat ancestry–who leagued with a majority of House Republics twice to deny Clinton legitimation for his war. Most liberals favored the bombing. A particularly vulgar spectacle was of Christopher Hitchens seemingly loth directly to endorse war waged by the man he has been denouncing as incapable of any decent or legitimate act, but taking the more devious expedient of attacking opponents of the war such as Tom Hayden, without putting any opinion of his own directly on the line. Even more vulgar was the spectacle of Susan Sontag brigading herself with Zbigniew Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright, in terming this bombing campaign “a just war”. Truly, a benchmark in the trahison des clercs. Among those opposing the war was a man who has written finely about this same trahison, Edward Said. Noam Chomsky, as always, set NATO’s claims to humanitarian motive in clarifying context. Peace groups rallied and by late May there was evidence of intense organizing across the country. Here at CounterPunch we found, as we so often do, heartening evidence of interesting coalitions. Many people visiting our website and subsequently calling us up are not from traditional left constituencies, but were delighted by our commentaries and have declared their admiration and pleasure at our stance.



Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.