Two former foreign correspondents were reminiscing in a German courtroom. I was one. The other was Niklas Frank, who has just retired after 22 years with Stern magazine.
We were in the presence of ghosts, for this was Room 600 of the Justice Building in Nuremberg, where 21 prominent Nazis were tried by the International Military Tribunal between November 1945 and October 1946. Niklas's father Hans Frank, the former governor-general of occupied Poland, was one of 12 to be hanged.
Niklas Frank, who was seven at the time, is against the death penalty in principle, but not in his father's case. "I'm really glad that he got the death penalty," he said, "so at least he experienced the seconds, the hours and the days and nights before death, which he himself brought to millions of people."
This is an appropriate time to remember Nuremberg. It is the direct ancestor of the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague, where the trial began yesterday of Slobodan Milosevic for crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and violations of the laws and customs of war.
Some things have changed since Nuremberg. It was one of the ironies of that process that men convicted of crimes against humanity were then taken out and hanged. Milosevic does not face the death penalty.
Other things stay the same. The Hague, like Nuremberg, dispenses justice under the eye of the camera. It is in one sense a show trial. It is also, like Nuremberg, victors' justice. The court came into being in 1993, at the darkest time of the Bosnian War, and the United Nations Security Council agreed to certain cosmetic measures – including the ill-fated "Safe Areas" – instead of the direct action it could and should have taken. It is sometimes spoken of as Madeleine Albright's court. Those brought before it are exclusively Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. The bombers of bridges and TV stations escape its jurisdiction.
I have given evidence at the tribunal on behalf of the HVO (Bosnian Croat) general Tihomir Blaskic, who was convicted of war crimes including the notorious Ahmici massacre in April 1993. Evidence later came to light, in President Franjo Tudjman's palace in Zagreb, which cast some doubt on the safety of his conviction.
From the first trial onwards, the Tadic case in 1996, defendants have complained that the system disadvantages them. The wheels of justice certainly tend to turn very slowly. Tihomir Blaskic was in prison for nearly three years before his trial began; after it started, he could have applied for a retrial because one of the elderly judges fell ill; had he been acquitted, I worked out that he would have sacrificed several days of his freedom to their coffee breaks alone. There are other frailties of procedure. The tribunal trying Slobodan Milosevic and others is a prosecutor's court. The prosecuting lawyers and judges, sharing the same building, are institutionally close to each other. Defence counsel are outsiders.
I suppose that I have been the witness to more war crimes than most people of my generation. I was present at Ahmici in Bosnia and at Vukovar in Croatia, which is part of the indictment against Milosevic. The charge is that he was one of those responsible for a joint criminal enterprise – the executions of 250 men, civilians, hospital staff and wounded soldiers, taken from the hospital there when it fell to the Serbs in November 1991. The day after the surrender, negotiated by the International Red Cross, they were shot in cold blood on Ovcara Farm on the other side of the town. I was present at the surrender, but not at what happened afterwards. That is the way with war crimes. They are committed secretly, come to light later and individual guilt is often hard to assign.
Last month, researching a documentary about war crimes for BBC television, I visited Ovcara Farm with Katica Ratkovic, the mother of a young man who was wounded in the defence of Vukovar and subsequently executed. Her home is a shrine to him. Her life has been 10 years of unbroken grief. She knelt in the snow and prayed and lit a candle. She also spoke of the process of justice as – in the same breath – both necessary and irrelevant. "This means nothing to me. Nothing can soothe my pain, but for the future, such things must never happen again, and yes, they must pay for it."
My last speech in the House of Commons was in defence of the rights of alleged war criminals – including Milosevic. We in the West are supposed to stand for the rule of law and for the values of civilisation. These include the presumption of innocence; the refusal to convict on suspicion or notoriety; and the application of due process even – perhaps especially – for someone who refuses to recognise the court.
We are in for a long haul. As someone acquainted with the crimes on the charge sheet, I would rather see an acquittal for lack of evidence, than the faintest hint of a political conviction. Not only is Mr Milosevic on trial. So is the tribunal itself.Reuse content