BOOK REVIEW: JUDGEMENT DAY: THE TRIAL OF SLOBODAN MILOSEVIC, BY CHRIS STEPHEN
Reviewed by Elmira Bayrasli
December 8, 2005
(From Balkan Insight Number 13)
"'Good morning your honours,' said the court registrar, one of
three black-robed officials sitting at a desk below the judges' bench.
'Case number IT-02-54-T, the Prosecutor versus Slobodan Milosevic.'
And so it began."
But this was no ordinary case and the former Serbian leader was
hardly just another criminal in the dock.
Indeed, as he covers the trial Chris Stephen realises that its
importance lies far beyond the "fate of one, extraordinary, man."
In fact, he concludes, the real significance of the proceedings lies
in their role in determining "the future of war crimes justice itself."
And his conclusion? "The prognosis is not good."
As a war correspondent Stephen spent much of the 1990s covering the
conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo for the Guardian,
London's Evening Standard and other outlets. He now concentrates on
war crimes issues.
In Judgement Day, he deploys his reporter's skills not merely to
give us a fresh account of the birth of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal
in The Hague, but also to shed light on how dealing with its most
infamous defendant inadvertently helped shape policymaking with regard
to the creation of the International Criminal Court, ICC, the world's
first permanent war crimes tribunal.
In Stephen's view the Milosevic trial and the fate of the ICC are
inextricably linked and, "will be the measure of the entire war crimes
process, and, if it goes well, it will become a powerful tool for those
arguing that the process should be permanent."
In light of Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, East Timor, Cambodia, Sierra Leone
and most recently Sudan, international justice, Stephen argues, has become
an unfortunate reality. The ICC, formally established in 2002, is its
Stephen's narrative begins in Kosovo in 1999, where Albanians are being
expelled from the province by Milosevic's men. Next, we are reminded of
the camps around Prijedor in Bosnia in 1992, through the recollections
of Nusreta Sivac, a judge who survived Omarska, the most infamous of
Sivac details the horrendous conditions of Omarska including the
screams of men, "which would punctuate the silence long into the night.
In the morning she saw the bodies of dead men, and others, beaten, bloody
but still alive, lying in the dirt."
And yet, Stephen refrains from a one-sided rant against the former
Yugoslav president. While he does not deny Milosevic's part in the
horrors of the destruction of Yugoslavia, all-night drinking episodes,
scheming with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his insouciance
towards the Srebrenica massacre, we are given pause when told about
his troubled youth. He was abandoned by his father, who subsequently
committed suicide, as did his mother and uncle.
Reading about Milosevic's family, to which he is clearly deeply attached,
the reader has to wonder if this is the same man who masterminded the
Balkan wars and was capable of such Machiavellian machinations.
Turning to the court itself, Stephen succeeds in documenting the
story of the tribunal and the personalities that made it without
drowning the reader in a mass of boring legal jargon. Here we meet
the first prosecutors, Richard Goldstone and Louise Arbour and we
follow their stories and that of the court until the Milosevic showdown.
Most of what follows comes as little surprise. But the tale that is told
makes for wonderful drama.
In Stephen's account the evidence against Milosevic clearly presumes his
guilt. And yet, the book also affords him ample opportunity for defence,
even though it was published before his own official defence case had
For example Milosevic appears deft at handling his accusers. Through
shrewd cross-examinations, he mixes "political fury with well-constructed
exposures of even tiny inconsistencies in the evidence of witnesses."
Stephen notes how at first, when the court looked at the Kosovo
indictment, journalists and presumably prosecutors were startled at
how Milosevic, "always seemed to know so much about each witness, as
well as about the battles and incidents mentioned in the court." They
soon found out why. Secret police records had been stolen, copied,
put onto CDs and supplied to Milosevic's lawyers. A kangaroo court
it is not.
Stephen concludes that, "despite its many failings, the trial seems to
have been a success." In principle it has served to underline the fact
that peace cannot be used to expunge wartime guilt. But is this enough
to help consolidate the ICC, also housed in The Hague, and to make it a
credible institution? Stephen is apprehensive. "The future of war crimes
justice depends ultimately on the United States."
Perhaps one of the most gripping strands in Stephen's book is his account
of the birth of the Yugoslav tribunal. As the war in Bosnia raged, public
opinion in the west became increasingly outraged by scenes such as those
from Omarska showing emaciated men behind barbed wire. Governments
scrambled to use the UN "as a fig leaf to cover its failure to stop
the Bosnian ethnic cleansing." In 1993, a Security Council resolution
calling for a war crimes court was unanimously passed. Its most fervent
supporter was the United States. Ten years later, in the wake of 9/11
and embroiled in Iraq and the war on terror, things have changed.
"The story of the trial and of the creation of the court has, at is
centre, the United States," writes Stephen. "Once the court's greatest
supporter, America is now its fiercest critic. The US government
is currently in the forefront of efforts to prevent war crimes justice
becoming a permanent feature on the world map, in opposition to the
European Union and its support for the new International Criminal Court."
The "mother" of the ICTY, Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of
State who fiercely advocated in favour of it when she was US ambassador
to the UN, once noted that for her country the war crimes agenda
was, "more than the pursuit of abstract US goals and interests.
It's about real people who are real war criminals or real victims."
Stephen no longer believes that to be true.
Once a champion of the rule of law, "the White House, frustrated by the
very real failings of multilateralism, has embarked on an experiment
to see if America can get what it wants by simply using its strength to
impose its will, irrespective of international law." He is disheartened
and fears for the ICC's survival. Judgement Day is his contribution to
keeping it alive.
Reviewed by Elmira Bayrasli, a regular Balkan Insight contributor based in Sarajevo. Published by Atlantic Monthly Press, $ 24