The Biggest War Crimes Trial Since Nuremberg

The biggest war crimes trial since Nuremberg.

Milosevic on trial 
        Click image to expand.
Milosevic on trial

“The prosecution, after three and a half years since the beginning of their case, still doesn’t know what exactly their charges are! … This prosecution will be studied at universities! … [This prosecutor] should be held criminally responsible for deliberate obstruction of truth and deceit!”

“Mr. Milosevic, Mr. Milosevic, you’re getting carried away.”

In a quiet government city on the rainy Dutch coast, the war-crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic is lumbering through its fourth year. Deposed Balkan strongman Slobodan Milosevic is being tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991—a name so long that it defies even U.N. bureaucrats’ most earnest efforts to derive a manageable acronym. The officially preferred short version—”International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia”—exists solely as a halfway house en route to the trips-lightly-off-the-tongue, just-between-us-pals nickname, “ICTY.” But most people just call it “the Yugoslavia Tribunal.”

What exactly is it? Well, let’s start with what it isn’t. The tribunal is not the World Court, which is more properly known as the International Court of Justice. That’s a century-old international body where disputes between sovereign nations are resolved; at the moment, the ICJ’s docket ranges from a squabble between Malaysia and Singapore about who owns a rocky outcrop in the South China Sea to Congo’s charge that pillaging Ugandan troops have invaded Congolese territory. The tribunal also isn’t the International Criminal Court, which was established by treaty in 1998 as a permanent organization flexible enough to prosecute war crimes from around the world that domestic prosecutors either can’t or won’t tackle themselves. The Yugoslavia Tribunal is much more limited than either of these two legal cousins. An ad hoc creature of the U.N. Security Council, it exists solely for the limited purpose of righting Yugoslavian wrongs and will last only as long as it’s got Yugoslavian business to resolve. It is scheduled to conclude all its business somewhere around 2010, at which time it’s apparently expected to vanish—pfft!—like Keyser Soze.

While each of these international judicial organizations is located in The Hague, there’s no mixing them up in person. The World Court sits in a lovely turn-of-the-century palace built in the city’s historic center with money from Andrew Carnegie. The International Criminal Court is set in the city’s modern outskirts in a sleek and confident skyscraper complex whose clean, soaring lines whisper “to infinity, and beyond.” Then there’s the gray 1950s monstrosity whose awkward triangular structure warehouses the Yugoslavia Tribunal. Originally home to an insurance company, the tribunal building has a grand total of two revolving-door entryways (each allowing only one person through at a time) for its 1,000-odd employees, keycard security points roughly every 100 feet of hallway, and an asbestos problem near the cafeteria. Water cooler scuttlebutt has it that multiple sections of Dutch OSHA regulations are being violated by the sheer number of people stuffed in basement offices without windows or adequate ventilation. And new arrivals leave the mandatory security briefing with the strong impression that in case of fire pretty much most of them will die.

It’s in this decidedly unglamorous setting that Milosevic’s trial has been inching forward since early 2002. The indictments paint him as the criminal puppetmaster of a massive conspiracy that perpetrated countless horrors, initially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the first half of the 1990s, then in Kosovo at the end of the decade. There’s no jury; the determination of guilt or innocence rests entirely on the shoulders of three judges: Patrick Robinson from Jamaica, O-Gon Kwon from South Korea, and Iain Bonomy from Scotland. By the time the prosecution wrapped up its case a year and a half ago, this trio had heard enough to conclude that there was a legitimate basis for most of the charges against Milosevic: the regime of terror and mass deportations in Kosovo, the concentration camps and systematic extermination in Croatia, the genocide in Bosnia. Now it’s Milosevic’s turn, his chance to do everything he can to avoid becoming the first head of state in history to go to prison for war crimes committed on his watch.

Two things stand out about the courtroom where Milosevic is presenting his defense: its small size, and its resemblance to the bridge of a starship from a 1960s budget sci-fi thriller. Ovals and soft curves abound; boxy monitors are sunk into each desk; the acoustic tile ceiling is punctuated by circular recessed lights that cast a serene glow over the proceedings. Staff members can exit and enter through a cramped airlock whose doors slide open and shut in space-age sequence, and a floor-to-ceiling bulletproof-glass wall separates the visitors gallery from the inner courtroom.

No more than 25 feet deep and 75 feet wide, the sealed-off interior is borderline claustrophobic. The defense, the judges, and the prosecution make three legs of a trapezoid around a center of empty space. In the center of the back wall, there’s a raised dais for the three judges, resplendent in the sheen of their vermillion gowns. In the shadow of this platform runs a parallel table for the judicial support staff, whose severe black robes and starchy white bibs rustle when they stand up and turn around to whisper something to one of their bosses. Along the left wall of the courtroom are two more long tables, one up front for the two British barristers serving as assigned defense counsel, and one in back for Milosevic himself. Immediately opposite, along the courtroom’s right wall, is another pair of tables with the lead prosecutor and his associates up front and other miscellaneous tribunal staff placed behind. The witness box makes the trapezoid’s short leg, leaving witnesses to face the judicial dais with their backs to the public gallery.

This peculiar little space is the stage for the biggest war crimes trial since Nuremberg. Tomorrow morning, the weekly show begins.