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Streets Of London: Tony Benn On Milosevic's Trial

Tony Benn is a household name in the UK. Professor Benn has made his name as a principled yet personable socialist Labour MP with broad cross-party appeal. Entering parliament in 1950 at 25 years-old, Benn, now 76, served as a minister under PM Harold Wilson. He very narrowly missed out on the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981. He’s the son of a Viscount and his renouncing of his peerage in 1963 has its place in British political legend. These days he’s visiting professor of politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His continues to be a loud, fluent and persuasive voice in the on-going campaign against sanctions on Iraq. He has also been vociferous in his opposition to British and US military actions in Serbia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Scoop’s London correspondent Malcolm Aitken spoke with him several days ago about the legality of Slobodan Milosevic’s trial at The Hague and Nato’s actions during the 1999 bombing of Serbia.

Streets of London from Malcolm Aitken in London

Tony Benn Talks To Scoop

Scoop: Does the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia [ICTY] have the authority to try Slobodan Milosevic?

Tony Benn:No.

Scoop: Why not?

Tony Benn: Well, first of all because the principle of law is that it must apply to everybody. The Americans do not accept any international tribunal, they turned it down, they voted it down, they would not allow any American citizen to appear before it and they just passed a law that would entitle the president to rescue any American citizen who was charged before an international tribunal, by a sort of, you know, dash in, and rescue them from the prison [*see note below]. That’s the first point. The second point is that Milosevic was extradited by the Yugoslavian government against the constitution of Yugoslavia. And, the third thing is it is a one-sided trial because it does not take account of the effect of the history of that, which was that the Germans, and the Americans, to some extent the British, decided to break up Yugoslavia by force. And, fourthly, the war against Yugoslavia was not authorized by the United Nations Security Council. And therefore on all those grounds I think it is an invalid trial. I’m not commenting upon Milosevic’s guilt or not, because that’s a separate question, you asked me about the legitimacy of the court.

Scoop: Addressing one of your points, Yugoslavian president Kostunica has been quite reluctant to have those indicted [by the ICTY] transferred to The Hague, particularly Milosevic. But Yugoslavia is a member state of the UN and under article 25 of the UN’s charter, member states are obliged to implement Security Council decisions.

Tony Benn: Well, in that case, why did the Americans attack Yugoslavia, that was contrary to the charter?

Scoop: So, it was a contravention of the Yugoslavian constitution that Milosevic was [transferred to The Hague]?

Tony Benn: Well, I mean we have extradition procedures in Britain, but if a government decides to break the extradition proceedings and send somebody to a trial, without, eh, not according to British law, it’s a breach of British law and of course the United Nations constitution upholds the territorial integrity of the member states. It may say to you as our government you should go through the proper proceedings and then extradite him, but he was kidnapped.

Scoop: Is the ICTY largely dependent on Nato countries’ funding?

Tony Benn: Well, I don’t know who funds it, but it is a Nato operation.

Scoop: Do you think there is a western bias in the judiciary and/or on the prosecutor’s bench?

Tony Benn: Well I think it is there to try Yugoslav leaders; it is not there to examine the evidence of what happened in the war. It’s got only such a narrow remit that it cannot have international credibility, or for that matter United Nations authority.

Scoop: Do you think Nato should stand trial for war crimes or similar in relation to the 1999 bombing of Serbia, and if so, for what?

Tony Benn: Well, that had no United Nations authority.

Scoop: I don’t know if you are aware of this, but Amnesty International says the April 1999 Nato bombing of the studios of Serbian state TV and radio [RTS], constitutes a war crime under International Criminal Court provisions [This international UN court will be able to try soldiers from signatory countries for alleged breaches of international humanitarian law if it’s established and 52 of a necessary 60 countries have ratified it. The first stage of establishing the court involved 139 countries signing a treaty that was agreed on in Rome in 1998-for more see below*].

Tony Benn: Yes, but the Americans would not allow their own citizens to be tried, nor has the international court made any attempt to indict people from the Nato side, if you like, for what they did. So it is the victors punishing the vanquished. That’s what it is. That is totally contrary to the principles of international law.

Scoop: Human Rights Watch [a New-York based human rights organisation] says on its website that the ICTY’s unfinished business includes indictments of Kosovo Albanians for crimes committed against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. To your knowledge, are there perhaps KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] leaders who should rightly be in the frame for indictments relating to alleged violations of international humanitarian law?

Tony Benn: Well Milosevic’s argument is of course that he was dealing with Albanian terrorism in a part of the territorial Yugoslavia. That is his argument. And if you listen to Lord Carrington, the former secretary-general of Nato, Lord Carrington said the persecution and the exodus of Kosovo Albanians began when the Americans starting bombing. And so, you get an entirely different interpretation of these events.

And, I don’t know whether or not Milosevic will be allowed to bring out all the evidence that he has, but his argument would be that what happened in Kosovo was a succession of terrorist attacks. Even in January 1999 the Americans classified the Kosovo Liberation Army as a terrorist organisation. In January 1999 [then British Foreign Secretary] Robin Cook said in the House of Commons that more Serbs had been killed by Kosovo Albanians than the other way round. And of course the ultimatum, the so-called, what was it, the Rambouillet accord was an ultimatum to Yugoslavia saying you must allow Nato troops to enter Yugoslavia, over any frontier, to base its troops anywhere in Yugoslavia and be exempt from Yugoslav law. Well, that was aggressive and contrary to the UN charter and absolutely insupportable. It was an unconditional surrender demanded before the bombing began. It was called the Rambouillet Accord, it was an ultimatum, it wasn’t an accord at all.

[NOTE] * Before Christmas the US Congress passed the House of Representatives’ Hyde Amendment, changing initially severely anti-International Criminal Court Senate legislation the Bush Administration had given its support to: the American Servicemembers Protection Act (ASPA).
The ASPA would have exempted US soldiers from appearing before the ICC.
As the name suggests, the court, which human rights groups worldwide are excited about, will try citizens from the signatory countries for alleged contraventions of international humanitarian law if it’s established.
Bill Clinton signed the initial ICC treaty but the US Senate hasn’t ratified it. The ASPA was essentially an attempt to ensure the US definitely wasn’t committed to ICC provisions: even non-ratifying signatories have responsibilities according to international legal convention.
Had Congress passed the ASPA, US military personnel on UN peace-keeping missions would be, according to US domestic legislation anyway, exempt from the court and the US president would have the authority to use military force to rescue American soldiers in ICC custody.
Ultra-conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helmes proposed it. The Hyde Amendment means only a diluted version is effective until the end of US fiscal year 2001/2002 (September 30).

- Malcolm Aitken is a freelance journalist based in London. He can be contacted at

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