Tribunal gives Slobo an election edge

Posted: Dec 31, 2003 12:00 AM

After retired Gen. Wesley Clark testified at the United Nations international criminal tribunal in The Hague -- where former Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic is being tried on 66 charges, including crimes against humanity -- Clark boasted to The New York Times that he is the only Democratic presidential hopeful "who's ever faced a dictator down. I'm the only one who's ever testified in court against one."

Now, Clark can boast that he's the only Democratic hopeful to testify against a dictator who quickly thereafter was elected to his country's parliament, as happened Sunday. (Not that Milosevic or Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj -- another U.N. tribunal defendant/electoral victor -- is likely to serve in office. As U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said Monday, "Milosevic is otherwise engaged in The Hague.")

Milosevic's electoral success should give pause to those who argue that the United Nations should preside over a trial for another dictator -- Saddam Hussein. Despite its good intentions, the United Nations has managed to botch several elements of Milosevic's prosecution.

To start, the United Nations' refusal to consider the death penalty has to be balm to Milosevic. A lawyer by training, Milosevic is representing himself in The Hague, knowing that the absolute worst that can happen to him is a sentence of life in prison. Even if the 62-year-old former dictator is convicted, he could be eligible for parole, if he lives long enough. In U.N. hands, Milosevic has little to fear.

In fact, Milosevic is probably safer awaiting trial in The Hague than he would be if he were free on the streets in Belgrade, where a popular uprising swept him from power in 2000.

The trial's broadcasts in the former Yugoslavia probably helped Seselj and Milosevic win in the polls. (Seselj's party won 27.5 percent of the vote, more than any other party, while Milosevic's Social Party won 5 percent.) The court is so feckless that both men were able to campaign for office despite a Hague prohibition on campaigning.

Whether it's true or not, many Serbs believe that the United Nations has wrongly concentrated on prosecuting Serbs, while undercharging Kosovar Albanians.

Thus, the tribunal erred when it indicted four members of Serbian security forces close to the election. Rebeka Bozovic, deputy president of the Liberal Party, complained to The New York Times, "My genuine belief is that (U.N. prosecutor Carla) Del Ponte was the best head of an electoral campaign that (Seselj's) Radical Party could ever have had."

International criminal tribunal defendants are believed to have profited from their trials, as they engaged in what diplomats call "fee-splitting" -- a polite term for kickbacks. Last year, London's Independent reported that war-crimes defendants have been able to pocket as much as 40 percent of their legal fees. So the family of a man sentenced to 25 years for war crimes bought two apartments, a business and three transport vehicles while the families of victims waited for justice.

There's a lot of money to be made; the Yugoslavian trials have cost almost $700 million so far. While the trials are slated to end in 2008, it's unlikely the schedule will be met -- Milosevic's trial already has outlasted its 14-month deadline. Thus, these trials will cost billions. Imagine if a good chunk of that money had been spent on rebuilding the former Yugoslavia.

Milosevic, unlike his minions, doesn't deserve a presumed-innocent trial. When NATO sent troops into the former Yugoslavia, its leaders already had reached the verdict that Milosevic's regime was guilty of crimes so heinous that others' lives would be placed at risk in order to end it.

So you have to wonder what made Clark write, in the preface to the paperback edition of "Waging Modern War," that the Bush administration should have turned to the United Nations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"What if," Clark wrote, "instead of relying on the nation's right of self-defense, we had gone to the United Nations and sought the creation of an International Criminal Tribunal on International Terrorism, taking advantage of the outpourings of shock, grief and sympathy to forge a legal definition and obtain the indictment of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban as war criminals charged with crimes against humanity and genocide? Would we not have had greater legitimacy and won stronger support in the Islamic world?"

To judge by The Hague fiasco, the answer is "no." It's scary to think Clark wants to be president.