Judgement Day: the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, by Chris Stephen

A legal landmark that began as a footnote
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The Independent Culture

The trial of Serbia's former leader Slobodan Milosevic, who last week began his defence, has gone on for so long in The Hague that many people have lost all interest. Even in Serbia, where I work, it no longer seems to be in the forefront of people's minds. In the cafés of Belgrade, when the TVs parked in the corner flash up some important new twist, the din carries on regardless. No one seems to listen.

The trial of Serbia's former leader Slobodan Milosevic, who last week began his defence, has gone on for so long in The Hague that many people have lost all interest. Even in Serbia, where I work, it no longer seems to be in the forefront of people's minds. In the cafés of Belgrade, when the TVs parked in the corner flash up some important new twist, the din carries on regardless. No one seems to listen.

But if familiarity has bred ennui, the Milosevic trial remains one of the most remarkable legal events in modern history. Here is a former European head of state, who held the fate of Balkan nations in his hands, and on whom Western statesmen once danced attendance, arguing face-to-face with the relatives of people his forces killed with seeming impunity. I almost feel sorry for him. He surely never expected this outcome when chatting away with Lord Owen.

As Chris Stephen's book explains, this development was far from inevitable. The now rather mighty International War Crimes Tribunal - which has spread fear among all who ordered and carried out ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, besides jailing many with hefty sentences - began as a German-inspired footnote to the ill-fated 1992 London Conference on Yugoslavia, hosted by John Major. While the conference proved an exercise in pointless chit-chat, the German footnote to the communiqué, urging the establishment of a war-crimes court for the region, was one of the proverbial acorns from which great oaks do grow.

As Stephen recounts, it was touch and go whether the acorn would take root. Major's Britain seemed to have almost limitless faith in the value of sweet-talking Milosevic, as did the pro-Serb Quai d'Orsay in Paris. It was only after George Bush senior gave way to Bill Clinton, while Major gave way to Blair plus Cook, that the tribunal gained powerful foreign friends.

The early years sound tragi-comic. The court's first office was depressing, rented rooms in a Dutch insurance building. The first president had to travel round The Hague by bicycle - simply to save cash. Even when the court got its own holding prison at Scheveningen, it did not have any detainees for years. Now, more than 10 years on, justice has been visited on many of the worst killers of the Nineties.

One problem with this book is its appearance before the trial has ended, which means the author has to rely on predictions of conclusion and sentence. I would have liked more on the criticisms aired concerning the court's methods, such as the plea-bargaining system, and of the flamboyant Chief Prosecutor, Carla del Ponte. But this book remains the only truly readable and well-paced account yet of one of the most remarkable trials - and courts - in our history.

The reviewer is Balkan Editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting

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