Rupert Cornwell: Today sees the start of a new system of international justice

'I simply could not imagine that a former head of state would be called to justice to answer for his crimes'
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I have set eyes on Slobodan Milosevic only once in my life, at the Bosnia peace conference in Dayton, Ohio, in autumn 1995. He was, one might say, in his pomp, in a crisp white shirt and fine tailored dark suit, every inch the statesman whose acquiescence was essential if the accords were to stick.

Everyone, of course, knew of the dreadful things that had happened exactly four months before in Srebrenica. Not only was the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims the worst such atrocity in Europe since the Second World War; it was also patently the work of the ethnic Serbs whom Mr Milosevic led. Dayton, though, was not the place to refer to them.

How utterly different now. True, Mr Milosevic dresses as smartly as ever for public appearances. But these take place exclusively at The Hague, in the dock of the international court for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

No longer is he negotiating the future of the Balkans with Dick Holbrooke and the like, to generous accompaniments of Johnny Walker scotch. When he is not disputing the right of the court to try him, he is said to while away the time playing cards, teaching English to his fellow accused and, inevitably, listening to Sinatra's My Way, that rogues' anthem of our time.

No one is more delighted than I at this colossal change in his fortunes. Even after Mr Milosevic was driven from power, I – like most others – simply could not imagine that a former European head of state and government would be called to justice to answer for his crimes. Middle-ranking apparatchiks, thugs and torturers, and other assorted monkeys, perhaps. But never, surely, the organ-grinder. There, however, he stands; and the importance of the occasion is transcending.

The trial that starts today is not about revenge nor, as was once fashionable to argue, about "forcing Serbia to confront its past". It is about securing justice for the hundreds of thousands killed, bereaved and dispossessed during Mr Milosevic's wars. But most of all, it is a proving ground for the emerging system of international criminal justice. On it depends in no small measure the future of the permanent International Criminal Court under the aegis of the United Nations, which could come into being within the year.

Nothing like this trial has been seen since Nuremberg – and the parallels between the Nazi war trials 55 years ago and this era of The Hague are evident. Now, as then, those in the dock complain of victor's justice – and not without reason. After all, Vladimir Putin will never be prosecuted for Chechnya, nor the United States for its misdeeds in Central America, nor even Ariel Sharon for Sabra and Shatila. And would Mr Milosevic have found himself in the dock if (admittedly a huge "if") he had consented to a peaceful solution to Kosovo and retained power in Belgrade?

But that is no reason why this trial should not be a landmark equal to Nuremberg. Like Mr Milosevic, Hermann Goering claimed he was a victim and won some tactical duels, above all at the expense of the American prosecutor Robert Jackson. In the end, of course, Goering was convicted. But his greatest defeat was at the hands of history. So illegitimate was his tribunal, Goering sneered, that in 50 years statues would be standing in his honour all over Germany. In the event, however, Nuremberg exposed for all time the pure evil of the Nazi regime.

Mr Milosevic will almost certainly try a similar approach. Let him. Let him, too, dominate the courtroom on occasion, as he undoubtedly will. And let some of the world leaders with whom he dealt – Bill Clinton and John Major, for example –- be called if needs be as witnesses, as Mr Milosevic demands.

Their presence may gratify his sense of self-importance, and remind us uncomfortably of times, like Dayton, when we sought his counsel and his blessing. Yes, we dallied with the notion that the break-up of Yugoslavia should be slowed or prevented, thus feeding Mr Milosevic's argument that he was acting to preserve European stability. But our sin was an error of judgement; it is of no bearing on the means that he is accused of employing to prevent the break-up. Those means were a heinous crime.

It does not matter if the trial lasts two years, as some expect. The paramount consideration is that the trial be scrupulously fair, and that it is seen to be so. Let a court of law prove beyond argument that Milosevic's way was not just mistaken, but a crime against humanity.

And one deafening silence testifies to the importance of getting it right. We might have expected President Bush to cite the Milosevic arraignment to buttress his claims that neither terrorists or anyone else can escape justice. But in his State of the Union speech two weeks ago Mr Bush did not even mention the former Serbian leader, even though his current predicament is proof perfect of what can be achieved when the community of nations puts its mind to fighting "evil" – whether singly or in axis-form.

An international court, moreover, would appear just the place to bring international terrorists to account. But we all know that Washington doesn't like the proposed ICC. Part of the reason is a generic aversion, stronger than ever under this President, to multilateral forums in which the US will have but one vote among many.

But there are deeper reasons. Like the Clinton administration before it, Mr Bush and his team are convinced the Court will be turned into an instrument of malicious anti-Americanism. In fact, the ICC will only step in where a country will not, or can not, punish its own. Think what you will of America; there is no denying that its respect for the law, its constitutional checks and balances are unmatched anywhere.

And this is another reason why this trial must demonstrate that it is not malicious, and be scrupulously observant of the law. Mr Milosevic's good fortune – one that he did not extend to others – is that the outcome of his trial is not ordained in advance. That is how the permanent ICC must be as well, and this court's treatment of Mr Milosevic should be the best possible advertisement for it.

Now that 139 countries have signed up, the ICC will undoubtedly come into being. How much better it would be with the constructive participation of the US, without whose pressure and military strength Mr Milosevic could not have been brought to justice at all.

rupertcornwell@hotmail.com

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