Farewell, Slobodan: Up close and personal

No great tragedy in itself, although it does deprive the world of one of the most interesting and worthwhile experiments in justice. The criminal trial at The Hague was not without its problems. Milosevic was clearly contemptuous of the process which saw him answer for his actions and used it, and the rolling coverage, to play to his home political constinency. The sheer length of the trial was also problematic, since a significant test of justice is the swiftness of its application.

Still, the trial made the point that no tyrant can escape the reaches of global justice. If only Milosevic was around for the verdict, the contents of which will no doubt remain the subject of endless speculation.

In May 2003 I was in The Hague and spent an afternoon watching the trial. Though I can't offer any great legal insights, I can tell you what I saw. The site of the court itself is heavily secured (with a delightful Indian-Australian from Templestowe on the door the day I visited) with the usual security features to which we have all become accustomed. Inside, the courtroom was encased in a thick sheet of glass, with the three judges sitting as a panel and a phlanx of lawyers supporting both the court and the prosecution. The late Sir Richard May was the presiding judge.

The trial was taking place trilingually - with some speaking French, others English, and Milosevic speaking in Serbian - whilst a tireless team of interpreters worked in boothes on the side of the court. All in the court, including in the viewing gallery, had an earpiece to hear the translation.

Much of the day that I saw was taken up with examination and cross-examination of a member of the Serbian military who was a witness to the siege of Dubrovnik in 1992. The witness was appearing via satellite from Yugoslavia. The questions were dry and formulaic and seemed to focus on the nature of the instructions recieved by the soldier. Milosevic, conducting his own defence, was cantankerous and mildly perturbed by the witness's evidence, but kept his anger to a dull rage which required only occasional chiding from the judges.

Whilst not quite friendly, the nature of the procedings was workmanlike and a rapport had clearly been built between Milosevic and the other members of the court. It was soon obvious why the trial was taking as long as it was - Milosevic chose to contest every fact that arose, relentlessly cross-examining witnesses. When this was combined with the necessarily rigourous attention to fine detail, simple events became increasingly complex.

Though the trial never reached its climax, it still served a purpose. It helped many of the participants in the Yugoslav wars achieve the cliched-but-necessary sense of closure. It also sent the message to other tyrants and potential-tyrants that they are not immune from the rule of law. For that, we should be thankful.

I don't get it either.


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