A Times Editorial
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001
Slobodan Milosevic's arrival in a jail cell in The Hague marked a triumph of international law. The former Yugoslavian strongman's impending trial before a U.N. war crimes tribunal also vindicates the patience and persistence of the United States and our NATO allies, which worked together to bring Milosevic to justice under circumstances that protected the new governments of Serbia and Yugoslavia.
Milosevic's extradition allays fears that the architects of crimes against humanity in the Balkans would remain free after dozens of underlings were punished. Milosevic set in motion the terrible events that culminated in the deaths of thousands of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. He also bears responsibility for the war crimes committed by ethnic Serbs during Bosnia's earlier civil war. Now that international authorities have demonstrated that no one is above the law, they should redouble their efforts to capture other prominent indicted war criminals, including Gen. Ratko Mladic and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
The timing of Milosevic's delivery to The Hague was masterfully orchestrated. Many voices in the international community and among Milosevic's opponents in the Balkans clamored for Milosevic to be arrested and extradited soon after NATO's air campaign against Serbia ended in 1999. Such a precipitous move would have risked further violence and undercut the democratically elected leaders who replaced Milosevic in Belgrade. Many others assumed that NATO, for all its tough talk, would never seriously attempt to bring Milosevic before the U.N. war crimes tribunal. However, settling for removing Milosevic from power and turning him into a pariah would have been a poor substitute for justice. International law demands that the political masterminds of ethnic cleansing be held accountable alongside the military henchmen who did their dirty work.
Instead, Washington and its allies practiced principled patience. They gave the government and people of Yugoslavia time to build the case against Milosevic on their own terms. First, they gave the new governments of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic room to establish themselves and build broad support. Then, they allowed a newly unshackled press to lay out the evidence against Milosevic that was suppressed throughout the 1990s. The recent discoveries of mass graves within Serbia were the final link in a chain of evidence that gradually turned popular sentiment against those who wanted to protect Milosevic from international prosecution.
An earlier attempt to extradite Milosevic to The Hague might have had disastrous consequences. Last week, the extradition of the butcher of the Balkans marked a breakthrough for international justice -- and a coming of age for the democratic governments that replaced Milosevic's regime.