Witnessing the Making of History: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic: Observing a Trial for Crimes against Humanity and Genocide

By Totten, Samuel | Social Education, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Witnessing the Making of History: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic: Observing a Trial for Crimes against Humanity and Genocide


Totten, Samuel, Social Education


For over twenty years I have studied, written about, and published essays and books on various facets of genocide. Not a day goes by that I don't think about some aspect of genocide and its many and long-range ramifications. Indeed, the prevention of genocide is a driving passion of mine. It was this passion that prompted me to travel to the Netherlands recently in order to observe the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague. (1)

Milosevic, the former president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, supreme commander of the Yugoslav Army and president of the Supreme Defense Council of Yugoslavia, faces three indictments on a variety of charges related to incidents that occurred during the four wars that took place in the Yugoslav region between 1991 and 1999. The charges he faces are crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, violations of the laws or customs of war, and genocide. His trial is a momentous occasion in the history of efforts to prosecute genocide because he is the first sitting head of state or government to be prosecuted by an international tribunal. Heads of state are now on notice that they can and will be tried for crimes against humanity that they commit while in office.

Following Milosevic's military defeat in the spring of 1999-when NATO and the United States undertook a highly controversial bombing campaign against the Serb troops to bring an end to the "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo--and his subsequent fall from power, the Yugoslav government turned Milosevic over to The Hague in June 2001. His trial formally began on February 12, 2002, and continues to this day Milosevic has chosen to act as his own defense attorney Attorneys at the ICTY estimate that the Milosevic trial will continue at least through December 2003.

The decision to establish the tribunal was made on February 23, 1993, by the UN Security Council. Concerned about brutality being perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia, the Security Council passed Resolution 808, which stated that the ICTY was being established "for the prosecution of persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991." (2) On May 25, 1993, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 827, approving the statute for the ICTY. Scharf and Schabas argue that

   In many respects the ICTY is a vast improvement over
   Nuremberg. Its detailed rules of procedure, for example,
   represent a tremendous advancement over the scant set of
   rules fashioned for the Nuremberg Tribunal. The ICTY's
   jurisdiction is defined on the basis of the highest standards
   of applicable law, [thus avoiding] any suggestion of post factoism.
   Defendants are granted a panoply of rights including the
   right to counsel, the right to remain silent, the right to view
   exculpatory evidence in the possession of the prosecutor, the
   right to a speedy and public trial, the right to cross-examine
   witnesses, and the right to appeal the judgment of the Trial
   Chamber to the Tribunal's Appeals Chamber. (3)

The Hague and the ICTY

The train trip from the Central Train Station in Amsterdam to The Hague takes about 50 minutes and is a pleasant journey through small, pretty villages and towns interspersed with farmland. The Hague itself is a quaint and graceful city, smaller than a typical capital, and adorned with large parks and winding streets. Its old and well-kept buildings are interwoven with modern edifices whose manicured grounds make' up for their lack of historic style. The ICTY rests in a plaza of non-descript buildings and has a pale blue United Nations flag fluttering overhead.

Prior to entering the building where the trial is held, I had to provide a UN police officer with my passport and describe the purpose of my visit. I placed my possessions on an X-ray machine and walked through a metal detector, after which another officer swept me with a hand-held metal detector. …

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