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Milosevic Mustn't Be Allowed a Quiet Retirement

October 29, 2000|Charles A. Kupchan and Diane F. Orentlicher | Charles Kupchan is the Shepardson fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and associate professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. Diane Orentlicher is professor of law at American University and a visiting scholar at Princeton University's program in law and public affairs

WASHINGTON — With Yugoslavia's nascent democracy still under siege from loyalists of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, many Western leaders are tempted to let Milosevic slip quietly into the background despite having been indicted by the U.N. Tribunal in The Hague for war crimes in Kosovo and facing likely charges for his role in the "ethnic cleansing" of Croatia and Bosnia. The Europeans are already lifting sanctions against Yugoslavia and have made it clear that "war crimes are not a priority." While Washington remains formally committed to seeing Milosevic tried in The Hague, it has suspended key sanctions and top U.S. officials have suggested that dealing with war crimes must take a back seat. Rebuilding a nation devastated by serial wars and international sanctions, the argument runs, is daunting enough without tackling the explosive issue of arresting Milosevic.

While the question of Milosevic's fate surely requires deft diplomacy, the Balkans would pay a heavy price should he be allowed to settle into quiet retirement. Granting Milosevic de facto immunity would deal a decisive blow to not only the prospects for peace in the region, but also to the efforts of The Hague tribunal to combat crimes against humanity.

Milosevic is seen throughout the Balkans as the mastermind behind a decade of ethnic hatred and warfare. Just as a family grieving the violent death of a member finds comfort when the perpetrator is brought to justice, so will Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia live more easily alongside Serbia if Milosevic is made to answer the charges against him.

De facto immunity would be a setback for Serbia. After its citizens have themselves rejected Milosevic, the international community should hardly resurrect him by placing the former president above the law. Yugoslavia's transition to democracy will also remain perilously incomplete unless its citizens are willing to confront the crimes that were committed in their name and to dispel the twisted myths that led their country astray.

The costs of tolerating de facto immunity have already become clear in Bosnia. Although NATO forces in Bosnia have the right to arrest individuals indicted by The Hague tribunal, they have allowed the most notorious suspects, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, to remain at large. (Mladic relocated to Serbia.) A key reason for Western timidity was the belief that arresting Karadzic and Mladic would provoke a Serb backlash, derailing Bosnia's fragile peace. But far from fostering stability, Karadzic's freedom has had a toxic effect. Although formally banned from political life, he has continued to stoke a virulent brand of nationalism among Bosnian Serbs, undermining the integrity of a united Bosnia.

Elsewhere, the apparent benefits of impunity have proved to be short-lived and its costs high. In Haiti, a U.S.-brokered deal allowing coup leader Raoul Cedras to retire to Panama smoothed the way for the restoration of democracy in 1994. But when the U.S. forces deployed to help maintain order withdrew from Haiti five years later, the country's democratic institutions were in a state of chronic paralysis, a legacy of Haiti's failure to reckon with its violent past.

In Sierra Leone, rebel leader Foday Sankoh was granted immunity from war crimes in exchange for his promise to lay down arms in July 1999. Forgoing prosecution, however, seems only to have emboldened him to sanction more acts of violence by his forces. In an acknowledgment of the failed policy, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently recommended establishing an "independent special court" to try Sankoh and others.

In contrast, recent developments in Croatia underscore the direct link between democratic reform and a nation's willingness to deal with the dark stains on its past. During the presidency of the late Franjo Tudjman, ethnic enmity went hand in hand with Croatia's defiant posture toward the The Hague tribunal. But Tudjman's successor, Stipe Mesic, has made cooperation with the tribunal a centerpiece of Croatia's transformation from a country that polarized the region to one that is promoting reconciliation. Mesic has turned in indicted suspects and retired generals who opposed his policies.

The benign effects have been felt not just in Croatia, but also in Bosnia, where moderate forces within the Croat minority are facilitating greater cohesion within the Bosnian-Croat Federation. Progress is being jeopardized, however, because many Croatians are outraged that the West, which has insisted on Croatia's cooperation with the tribunal, seems ready to embrace Serbia without making similar demands.

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