Milosevic case provided lessons for war crimes trials
Slobodan Milosevic's trial in
The Hague provided important evidence about Belgrade's role in the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s, as well as lessons for future war crimes trials, the group Human Rights Watch said in a report, released on Thursday.
The abrupt end of Slobodan Milosevic's trial deprived many of the victims of the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s of a final judgement, but this should not diminish the trial's other achievements, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a new report, released on Thursday (December 14th).
The US-based group's 80-page paper "Weighing the Evidence: Lessons of the Slobodan Milosevic Trial" examines the evidentiary and procedural aspects of the former Yugoslav leader's case.
Europe's biggest war crimes case since the post-World War II trial in Nuremberg opened at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on February 12th, 2002. Milosevic, who was arrested in April 2001 and transferred to The Hague three months later, became the first former head of state to stand trial for war crimes. He was charged with 66 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, violation of the laws or customs of war contained in three separate indictments, referring to his role in the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Croatia and Kosovo conflicts. The BiH indictment included the gravest charge of genocide.
Initially, the trial was expected to last at least two years. After numerous interruptions owing to Milosevic's poor health, the "trial of the century" was still under way when Milosevic died on March 11th 2006. The proceedings were terminated officially three days later, only months before the judges were expected to issue their final rulings on the case.
"Although Milosevic was never convicted, evidence exposed at his trial showed how Belgrade orchestrated the vicious wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo," Sara Darehshori of the HRW International Justice Programme said. "The Milosevic trial also shows how to manage -- or not -- future prosecutions of high-ranking officials for crimes of huge magnitude."
The vast amount of evidence consolidated during the trial will help future generations to understand the region's history and how the conflicts came to pass, the HRW report said. The fact that the former Yugoslav leader was able to test the prosecutor's evidence in cross-examination not only enhances its value as a historical record, but also makes it useful for other war crimes trials.
The HRW has drawn a number of lessons from the Milosevic case, including that prosecutors should limit the charges to the most serious crimes alleged and avoid duplication. The group also believes that combining separate, but linked, war crimes indictments against a high-level official into a single trial helps ensure that a complete picture of the individual's overall role in the perpetration of the alleged crimes is presented.
Milosevic's case also demonstrated that an adequate pretrial period must be ensured and that courts should not yield to public pressure to open a trial before all parties have completed their preparations.
"Starting the trial 11 days after the decision to combine charges on Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia in a single case had a very negative effect," said Darehshori.
Accused high-level officials should be allowed to represent themselves only if they are able to fulfil the role as counsel and attend court sessions regularly, the HRW argued.
"When an accused represents him or herself, assigning counsel to act as amici curiae is an appropriate way of ensuring the accused's rights are protected," the report noted. "In legally and factually complex cases, it is important to have attorneys capable of looking after technical issues that a defendant representing himself may not be capable of handling, to ensure a fair trial."
Full report can be found on