After five years on trial in The Hague, Slobodan Milosevic died in his cell earlier today. On trial for genocide and war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, he is probably the highest profile individual to be put before an international tribunal. Now, despite the thousands of hours in court, the funds expended, and the various difficulties overcome, there will probably never be a verdict.
Of course, it may seem superfluous to deliver one after the death of the man on trial. In this case, however, I don’t think that would be true. It is important to show that these kinds of tribunals are capable of dealing with crimes of the extent Mr. Milosevic is accused of committing. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the equivalent ad hoc tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) were the precursors to the International Criminal Court (ICC), a body that is in need of establishing itself as an effective mechanism both for deterring crimes against humanity and for punishing those who violate international law in such egregious ways.
There seems to be no evidence, at present, that Mr. Milosevic died of anything other than the high blood pressure and heart condition that had previously served as the justification for an attempt to have him sent to Russia for treatment. It was a request that was not ultimately complied with. Mr. Milosevic died six days after Milan Babic, a fellow Serb prisoner, committed suicide.
Despite the length and expense of these trials, they serve an important documentary role: providing extensive evidence of what took place in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo during the 1990s. They also allow us to look back on choices like the NATO decision to employ a bombing campaign against Serbia with the benefit of better information than we had at the time. To some extent, that uncovering, sorting, and verifying of information has already taken place for the series of wars embodied by the Srebrenica massacre. Hopefully, even without the conviction of Mr. Milosevic, that will serve to make us collectively wiser in the future.