“Mistuh Meloow-sev-ich,” the late Judge Sir Richard May scolded the former Serbian president in his highbrow British accent. “We're certainly not going into Shakespeare. You're cross examining this witness, rather than addressing a literary class. Just examine the witness. ”
It was June 2003, and I was a lowly intern for the prosecution team that had prepared the witness for trial. The slight man in the witness chair was a former municipal employee from a small Bosnian town. He had just testified that local Serbian authorities raided Muslim homes to confiscate their hunting rifles, which were subsequently handed over to local Serb paramilitaries. Milosevic, acting as his own defense lawyer, was trying to establish that the local Muslim population was, in fact, preparing its own militia and thus needed to be disarmed.
Unsurprisingly, Milosevic didn't present any evidence to support his claim, so he took to quoting Hamlet instead. “You know, Mr. May, that famous sentence, ‘There are many things in this world that your mind does not even dream of, Horatio,'” he said, after which, in a nod to May's stuffy British demeanor, adding: “You know that because it's Shakespeare, I'm sure.”
Judge May died of brain cancer a year after that exchange. His Shakespeare-quoting daily sparing partner outlived him by 18 months until he was found dead in his cell on Saturday. Though Milosevic bastardized the proper Hamlet quote (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”), it may yet be the epitaph scrawled on his tomb. The dubious circumstances surrounding his death, which was apparently caused by an un-prescribed antibiotic that counteracted the effects of his hypertension medication, are likely to be the fodder of conspiracy theorists for years to come.
But for now, as the inevitable essays expounding on the legal and historical consequences of his death begin to trickle out, it is worth noting the huge political successes that his trial already achieved. Even if the most basic goal of a war crimes prosecution -- to render to victims a sense of justice -- is forever diluted by the circumstances of Milosevic's untimely death, his prosecution was an unprecedented geopolitical coup for the United States and its allies. And his arrest and trial is a pattern that the United States and its allies should consider repeating if they decide to confront the 21st century's worst war criminals.
Despite the emerging conventional wisdom, Milosevic's death was rather well timed. True, it came only two months before his trial was set to conclude. But the prosecution rested its case over a year ago. And when combined with 360 hours of courtroom testimony, Milosevic's indictment looks pretty convincing. Indeed, Princeton political scientist Gary J. Bass once described Milosevic's indictment as a “how-to manual” for aspiring political thugs. It spelled out in excruciating detail Milosevic's role as the head of a vast “joint criminal enterprise” that rubbed out political opponents and slaughtered or deported entire civilian populations. Nearly two years of testimony from rape victims, heads of state, and former confidants have created a definitive history of the Balkan wars, with Milosevic undeniably the aggressor.
However, it was the crimes he committed closer to home that ultimately caused Serbian public opinion to turn against Milosevic. To be sure, throughout the trial he had a favorability rating that Dick Cheney would envy; a dependable horde of old guard Serbian nationalists remained in his flock, and in 2003 he even won a seat in Parliament. But among a younger generation of Serbs, and among the growing Serbian middle class, the trial shattered the pervasive Christ-like myth that Milosevic engendered in the 1990s.
Some of the most powerful witnesses for the prosecution were mid-level government accountants in Belgrade who testified to endemic corruption that sank the Serbian economy. The country suffered under international sanctions, but Milosevic hijacked state bureaucracies to his personal financial and political benefit. One witness for the prosecution testified that shortly following a meeting between Milosevic and the notorious gang leader Arkan, a government official handed Arkan a briefcase of cash worth millions -- this at a time when thousands of Serbians were going hungry.
Beyond creating an authoritative account of Balkan history and showing Serbians the true nature of their dear leader, the real success of Milosevic's trial was that it happened at all. Milosevic had been under indictment since 1999. And even after Milosevic's political ouster in June 1999, he remained a major source of regional instability. As head of a Mafia-style network, he retained enough power to manipulate regional politics and instill fear in his would-be rivals. House arrest proved an insufficient means for diminishing Milosevic's power, and only after his physical removal to a detention facility in the Hague did his influence in the region begin to wane.
And herein is the most basic lesson to take away from the Milosevic trial: Just as a jailhouse in The Hague separated Milosevic from his Balkan bully pulpit, so can future war crimes prosecutions add value to American and international efforts to bring peace and stability to the world's most oppressed, bloodstained regions. The heir of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, the International Criminal Court has already opened investigations into alleged crimes against humanity in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Northern Uganda, and Darfur. Of those regions, only the crimes in Darfur have been called genocide. And in Sudan, like Serbia in the 1990s, the government bears primary responsibility for these mass atrocities.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration's unyielding hostility to the ICC does not suggest that it will take this lesson to heart and use the ICC to criminalize the Sudanese political leadership. Administration officials see the ICC only in terms of what it can do to Americans, rather than what it can do for American interests. Just a few tram stops away from Milosevic's courtroom, the ICC's trial chambers are empty, but open for business. Horatio couldn't have dreamed that such a court would ever exist. Sadly, the Bush administration's imagination is equally limited.
Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.