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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON THE BALKANS

A Devilish Decision for the West

Allies must decide if Milosevic is a power broker or a war criminal; they can't have it both ways.

May 17, 1999|ELIZABETH NEUFFER | Elizabeth Neuffer is the Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she is writing a book about postwar justice in Bosnia and Rwanda

Everyone from British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has threatened that Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic will be held accountable for those who commit atrocities. But negotiating with him and urging his prosecution in the same breath may present problems.

The threat to prosecute Milosevic and some of his commanders for war crimes in Kosovo is not only welcome, it is on the mark given the unfolding reports of crimes, from suspected mass killings to the alleged systematic rape of Kosovar women. But the Western allies must choose whether they want Milosevic the power broker back at the negotiating table or Milosevic the war criminal in the dock at the Hague. He cannot be both, if the international rule of law is to have any meaning at all.

If Western leaders still wish to deal with Milosevic after urging that he be indicted, they will send the message that justice is part of the bargaining process. That's not to say that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia would be swayed from making its case; its chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, has been outspoken that her concern is gathering evidence, not caving to political pressure. But how Western leaders handle Milosevic affects the impact an indictment can possibly have. If we negotiate with him, we are unlikely to send NATO troops in to arrest him, and all the less likely to ever bring him to trial. That only tells the genocidal thugs of the world that justice is subservient to politics, and that when NATO calls someone a war criminal, it doesn't mean it.

Should NATO allies decide they will not negotiate with Milosevic in light of unfolding atrocities in Kosovo, then justice and politics can work hand in hand. Choosing to topple Milosevic's regime is not an easy strategy, and finding someone to negotiate with from among the pool of opposition leaders and disgruntled ex-Milosevic supporters will prove difficult. But it would ensure a fresh start with leaders somewhat less heinous than Milosevic. At the same time, bringing well-documented charges against Milosevic would be far more persuasive than NATO bombs to what remains of Serbia's liberals, who have long wished to be rid of their leader's tyranny.

Indeed, if the Clinton administration and its allies are serious about halting Milosevic--and bringing peace to the region--then they would do well to follow through on their commitment to bring justice to the Balkans and arrest indicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. Not only would Karadzic--long rumored to be contemplating surrender--provide ample evidence against Milosevic, but his arrest also would send the message that a war crimes indictment does contain the threat of punitive action. NATO's reluctance to arrest the scores of indicted war criminals who remain free has made the charge a mockery. How serious can a war crimes trial seem when paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznjatovic, known as Arkan, can appear on the BBC and CNN despite his recently unsealed 1997 indictment?

NATO must also make good on its pledge to turn over key evidence to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague. Despite recent claims that satellite imagery and other intelligence would be turned over, the tribunal's prosecutors and judges have repeatedly expressed frustration at how little of this vital evidence has arrived.

The irony is that had NATO allies pushed to have Milosevic indicted for his war crimes in Bosnia, the West might well have been spared the ongoing horrors of Kosovo. Legal experts say there already is sufficient evidence to issue an indictment against Milosevic. His indictment in 1996 would have sent a bolstering message to the thousands who took to Belgrade's streets in 1997 calling for his ouster. It would have made him a pariah. It would have underscored that we would not stand by, should Milosevic decide to move on Kosovo.

Instead, we chose to appease Milosevic, thinking him the solution, not the origin, of the problems in the Balkans. The folly of that choice has led the West to the devilish decision it must make now. Either indict Milosevic and also destroy his regime, or negotiate with him and live with the consequences. Take the risk of toppling his government and put Milosevic behind bars, or live with the certainty of what the future will bring if we negotiate with him: Milosevic, reveling in his impunity, will charge into Montenegro or the Sandzak when he next needs a crisis, and get another horrific round of atrocities underway.

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