The death of Slobodan Milosevic from an apparent heart attack in the Hague on Saturday ends a terrible chapter in the history of modern Europe. Milosevic will never be convicted of the war crimes and crimes against humanity that his government and army carried out in the 1990s, and he died defiant, mocking the trial that sought to hold him accountable for uncounted deaths.
All eyes are now on the trial of the other dictator, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. And while Hussein and Milosevic headed very different countries in very different parts of the world, the careers and crimes of the two men were strikingly similar.
Both came to power by ruthlessly manoeuvring themselves to the top of their totalitarian parties, Saddam in Iraq’s Baath Party and Slobodan in Yugoslavia’s Communist Party. Once at the top, they both purged the parties of their rivals and consolidated their grip on power. Both fixed elections and intimidated opponents to make sure they stayed there.
Hussein and Milosevic commanded armies that committed war crimes against the civilian populations of neighbouring states, Hussein in Kuwait and Milosevic in Bosnia. Both used secret police and paramilitaries to commit crimes against humanity against ethnic groups within their own territories, Hussein mainly against the Shia, Kurds and Marsh Arabs, and Milosevic mainly against Albanian Muslims.
Both Milosevic and Hussein violated the conditions of the treaties that ended the earlier wars, sparking a second round of conflict. The Serbian leader violated the Dayton Accords signed with President Clinton at the end of the Bosnian War. Then Milosevic began to commit massacres, forced deportations and support paramilitary death squads in Kosovo, creating the same situation he had in Bosnia four years earlier. Clinton launched a bombing campaign against Serbia, which ultimately led to the ousting of Milosevic from power and his arrest and detention by the Serbian government that replaced him.
The script is remarkably similar for Iraq. Hussein violated the conditions of the armistice agreement signed with George Bush senior that ended the Gulf War in 1991. He tried to assassinate former President Bush on a trip to the Middle East, he continually fired missiles at coalition aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones, and he misled and finally ejected UN weapons inspectors from Iraq before they could complete the job of cataloging and destroying his enormous stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. When faced with an ultimatum to either submit a full accounting of all the weapons of mass destruction he was known to have when the inspectors were ejected in 1998, or face “serious consequences,” Hussein perpetrated a massive fraud upon the UN. This set the stage for the second Iraq war in March of 2003, resulting in Saddam Hussein’s fall from power, and ultimately, his capture by U.S. forces.
Finally, both leaders brought ruin not only on neighboring states, but on their own people as well. Both of their regimes combined external belligerence with internal repression to turn Serbia and Iraq into international pariah states, ruining the economies of their respective countries, and the lives of many of their citizens, but never their own.
Both were charged with similar crimes after they fell from power. Both have turned their respective trials into circuses, trying to put the judge and jury, United States and international community on trial instead of themselves. But this is where the similarities end.
Milosevic was being tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. The ICC is desperate to prove that it has real authority, and it has tried to use the Milosevic trial to showcase itself. The ICC wants to be to international crime what the UN Security Council is to international conflict: a supranational body, the highest authority, the embodiment of the collective will of the world.
But it’s precisely because the ICC had an overarching agenda of justifying itself, and didn’t directly represent the people and countries that were victimized by Milosevic, that they made a mess of his trial. They’ve been very heavy-handed in wielding their power, beginning with the pressuring of the new Yugoslav government to hand Milosevic over to the ICC ahead of a donor’s conference in 2001, with the implication that Europe wouldn’t give money for reconstruction unless their demands were met.
This outraged many Serbs and others, who felt that Milosevic should be tried by a Yugoslavian court for his crimes against them. Equally galling was the sanctimoniousness of the European Union (E.U.) and UN-led push to take charge of prosecuting him. The same E.U. that failed to act when Milosevic was engaged in mass-murder and ethnic cleansing in their own back yard, forcing the United States to act unilaterally to stop him, was now insisting that only the European-led, UN-administered ICC had the moral authority to prosecute him. Needless to say, this didn’t go over very well in Belgrade.
But the ICC was eager to flex its muscles on the international stage, and they overruled the new, democratically elected government of Serbia, taking Milosevic into custody to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. So instead of Milosevic being tried by his own people for crimes against them, he was taken to the Netherlands, to be tried by foreign bureaucrats hungry for an opportunity to make the E.U. and UN look strong.
By the time Milosevic died on Saturday, the ICC had succeeded in all but completely rehabilitating his reputation in his native Serbia. He claimed that the ICC was illegitimate, and many Serbians agreed. He claimed that he and the Serbian people were being pushed around and disrespected, and the Serbs who had watched their government be blackmailed into handing over their former head of state concurred. In other words, by taking him out of his country to face a foreign court, the E.U. and the ICC had allowed him to cast himself, once again, as the heroic representative of the Serbian people, standing up for them against foreign interference. Milosevic will be lionized in death by many, if not most, of his people, which would have never happened had he been insulting a Serbian judge in front of a Serbian jury for years before he died.
Hussein is being tried by an Iraqi court in Baghdad. Perhaps learning from the fiasco that was the Milosevic trial, the U.S. didn’t take charge of prosecuting him immediately after he was captured. Nor did they hand him over to the ICC, much to the outrage of the E.U. and the UN. Instead, they waited until Iraq had ratified a new constitution, voted in a new government, reconstituted their judiciary, and were ready to try their own tyrant for his crimes against them.
Hussein and his legal team are trying all the same tricks that Milosevic’s defence tried. Saddam claims to be the true leader of Iraq and refuses to recognize the authority of the court. If his trial were taking place in Guantanamo Bay or Washington, he might get away with this. But when he mocks a senior Iraqi judge, in an Iraqi courtroom, Iraqis aren’t impressed.
He claims that he loves his people and wishes they would be free of the foreign invaders who are oppressing them. He could probably sell that in a European courtroom, where regardless of the defendant, it’s often America that’s really on trial. But when he says this in a courtroom filled with Iraqis, all of whom have a friend or relative who was tortured and killed by his regime, he finds there isn’t anyone buying.
Saddam Hussein will be convicted of the systematic imprisonment, torture and murder of many thousands of Iraqis, by an Iraqi court. And unlike Milosevic, when he dies, very few of ‘his’ people will mourn him.