The Balkans on Trial

Serbia’s long tragedy looks like it is coming to an end. The death of Slobodan Milosevic has just been followed by Montenegro’s referendum on independence. Independence for Kosovo, too, is inching closer.

The wars of the Yugoslav succession have not only been a trial for the peoples of that disintegrated country; they also raised huge questions about the exercise of international justice. Do international tribunals of the sort Milosevic faced before his death promote or postpone serious self-reflection and reconciliation in damaged societies? Do they strengthen or undermine the political stability needed to rebuild wrecked communities and shattered economies?

The evidence on these questions is mixed. Indeed, the record of the International War Crimes Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), based in The Hague, may be instructive in judging the credibility of the strategy of using such trials as part of the effort to end civil and other wars. In 13 years, the ICTY, with 1,200 employees, spent roughly $1.25 billion to convict only a few dozen war criminals. Moreover, whereas members of all ethnic groups committed crimes, in its first years, the ICTY indicted and prosecuted far more Serbs than others, fueling a perception, even among opponents of Milosevic’s regime, that the tribunal was political and anti-Serbian.

We may regret that Milosevic’s own trial ended without a conclusion. But a conviction only of Milosevic, however justified, without parallel penalties for his Croat, Bosniak, and Kosovo-Albanian counterparts would hardly have contributed to serious self-reflection within the post-Yugoslav nations.