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Yes to a Hague-on-the-Danube Trial for Milosevic

International Herald Tribune, 9 January 2001

If Belgrade won't send Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague, there is every good reason for The Hague to come to Belgrade and try him there. The hints given to Madeleine Albright in Washington by Yugoslavia's new foreign minister, Goran Svilanovic, that this course may be acceptable to the Kostunica administration should be welcomed with open arms.

What is beyond argument or compromise is that Mr. Milosevic must be tried under international law in an international court for the war crimes for which he has been indicted. It is not enough for him to be tried and punished domestically for fraud, corruption or other alleged criminality.

The scale of the atrocities and misery for which Mr. Milosevic bears primary responsibility - and the current terms of his indictment, referring only to Kosovo, merely scratch the surface in this respect - cry out for exemplary judicial process and punishment.

There was no international mood, even at the Hague tribunal itself, to press the issue hard before Vojislav Kostunica had the Dec. 23 Serbian elections behind him. But the feeling among Serbia's neighbors and, crucially for Belgrade, among most of the donor community on which it will be relying heavily for support is that the matter cannot now rest.

And it is not a question just of settling accounts in the former Yugoslavia, but of the demonstration effect elsewhere. If we are serious about putting the genocidal horrors of the 1990s behind us, international justice simply must be shown to have a long reach and a long memory.

Until now, President Kostunica has been ducking and weaving. His nationalist instincts, credentials and past statements are at odds with his understanding of the international obligations and pressures weighing upon him. He is on record many times as not being prepared to send Mr. Milosevic or co-indictees to The Hague. He has also said that his government will cooperate with the Hague tribunal.

One option for the European Union, the United States and other key international players is simply to squeeze Mr. Kostunica harder, making further support and the lifting of remaining sanctions very explicitly conditional on Mr. Milosevic's appearance in The Hague. But this may be overestimating Mr. Kostunica's capacity to deliver.

Electoral landslides notwithstanding, the coalition of former opposition parties is fragile, and there are residual question marks about his control over the police and military.

If he now thinks that he can deliver a variation on the Hague tribunal theme, with the tribunal sitting in Belgrade, trying the case there under international law, passing its verdict there and with Mr. Milosevic serving any custodial punishment in Yugoslav rather than Dutch or Scandinavian prisons - why not take "yes" for an answer?

The tribunal's statute, adopted by the UN Security Council in 1993, places its seat in The Hague, but its rules authorize it to "exercise its functions at a place other than the seat of the tribunal if so authorized by the president in the interests of justice." Similarly the president can authorize imprisonment in any state which has indicated its willingness.

There are obvious practical problems, not least with the security required for judges, prosecutors and especially witnesses. It may be that some members of the tribunal would find Belgrade a distinctly less comfortable environment than The Hague in which to operate. But my clear impression from discussions with senior tribunal personnel, past and present, is that these problems are not insurmountable - provided the tribunal is given sufficient budgetary support.

The security risk argument has certainly often been overstated in the past. Much of the reluctance of international forces to take aggressive action in Bosnia and elsewhere to arrest Hague indictees has been driven by a fear of backlash from the ethnic communities involved. But in practice each such apprehension, when it has occurred, has passed almost without incident.

Perhaps the strongest reason to say "yes" to the Hague-on the-Danube option is one pointing in the opposite direction: that it would create the opportunity for the Serbian public to be much better informed about the events of the last decade.

It would be readily possible to have not only internal court interpretation but also live Serbian-language broadcasting of the proceedings. It is easy for opponents to claim that the tribunal is hopelessly biased and politically motivated when nobody can follow it; much harder when everyone can.

The International Crisis Group has argued for a much more activist approach to the apprehension and punishment of suspected war criminals from all ethnic communities - including the scores of second-level perpetrators who remain not only unindicted but in positions of real political and administrative influence in various parts of the Balkans. And at the trial stage we have argued for a much better connect between the paneled courtrooms of The Hague and the general public.

It is not too farfetched to think of Hague tribunal proceedings not just as legal redress but as a contemporary morality play, forcing people to confront and acknowledge, as a prelude to eventual reconciliation, the misdeeds that many would prefer to forget.

No misdeeds rank higher for that kind of exposure than Slobodan Milosevic's, and there may be no better place to stage that morality play than Belgrade itself.

The writer, president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, was foreign minister of Australia from 1988 to 1996. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

The writer, president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, was foreign minister of Australia from 1988 to 1996. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.