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Upadhya: Milosevic’s Defiance In Saddam’s Defense

Milosevic’s Defiance In Saddam’s Defense

By Sanjay Upadhya

It turns out that Slobodan Milosevic did much more than simply evade the clutches of justice. The former Yugoslav president set a precedent for peers facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Through a mixture of crude theatrics, legal hair-splitting and utter insolence, the worst offenders could expect to diminish the prosecution’s case. In Saddam Hussein’s defiance from the witness stand in Baghdad this week, Milosevic’s spirit was alive.

Whether the former Yugoslav president’s death was self-inflicted, a case of murder or a result of natural causes will perhaps never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. It may even be immaterial. The “Butcher of Belgrade” is likely to live on through the stinging epithet rather than his epitaph.

The Balkan wars unleashed on Milosevic’s watch have left a murderous legacy. The Croatian war claimed some 20,000 lives, the Bosnian war 100,000 and the Kosovo conflict 10,000. Millions of lives continue to be convulsed in different ways. The 66 charges he was facing in The Hague spoke enough of his record in office. His death was a setback for the evolving international justice system when it was so close to achieving the first conviction of a former head of state.

There are elements of the Milosevic story that defy easy characterizations. In a BBC interview the other day, Lord Owen described Milosevic as someone who honored his pledge. A genocidal maniac might exhibit bright moments of lucidity. Earning the compliment – even if unintended -- of an international statesman would have required greater sanity.

Milosevic was sane enough to act as his own defense attorney at The Hague. A particularly coherent moment arrived in late 2003, when he cross-examined retired U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark. Referring to Clark’s first meeting with Radko Mladic, Milosevic asked the former NATO supreme commander to describe his relations with the Bosnian Serb general.

Clark described Mladic as angry and belligerent. Milosevic, however, recalled otherwise. He said both Clark and Mladic had described the meeting to him as very cordial. “Mladic praised you a great deal, that you had a lot of understanding, and then also you said to me all the best about Mladic. Isn't that right, General Clark?” Milosevic continued.

Clark said he did not remember making any complimentary remarks about Mladic, adding it was difficult to engage in a cordial conversation with him. Milosevic then pointed to front page photograph in the Belgrade weekly Nin in which Mladic and Clark were seen wearing each other’s caps.

Surely, Milosevic must have prepared similar questions for British Prime Minster Tony Blair and former U.S. president Bill Clinton, whom he wanted to question at the trial. Milosevic’s failing health intervened; the world was deprived of what would have been groundbreaking exchanges.

To be sure, Milosevic could not have unleashed such devastation without willing partners. Lesser known players have been convicted; Bosnian Serb leaders like Radovan Karadzic and Mladic still remain at large. Since he towered above them all, Milosevic bore most responsibility.

No doubt, supporters will continue to rue how a nationalist was brought down as part of a “conspiracy” against Yugoslavia – Milosevic’s principal defense. For most, Milosevic, like Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot before him, will stand convicted as charged in the public consciousness.

The architects of the international justice system must confront the lesson. As the wheels of the legal system inch forward, minutely and methodically adhering to its core principles, public memory will have been distracted. Future Milosevics will no doubt try to use each delay and distraction to plant enough skepticism to convey the impression of the triumph of victors’ justice.

Saddam Hussein may or may not have followed the twists and turns of Milosevic’s trial to emulate his defense. The former Iraqi strongman has clearly capitalized on his own people’s nostalgia for the safety, security and certainty of his regime. Amid daily losses of lives and limbs, as Milosevic might have ruminated, old mass graves lose their power to offend.


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