Review of The Milosevic Trial – an autopsy (ed Waters)

The Milosevic Trial – an autopsy

Professor Timothy Waters


ISBN: 978 0199795840

PRICE: £94

Slobodan Milosevic was the first sitting head of state indicted for war crimes. After his fall from power, the new government in Belgrade was eventually persuaded to extradite him to the ICTY in The Hague. The trial was meant to showcase the brave new world of international criminal law. Of the 161 persons indicted by that tribunal, he was certainly the most high profile. That it ended in failure was in part due to his death several years into the trial.

By common agreement much about the process was unsatisfactory, in particular its inordinate length, leading Carla Del Ponti, the ICTY chief prosecutor at the time, to comment that “Milosevic’s death, after more than four years, put the trial out of its misery.”

The word “autopsy” in the title is a pun, in reference to the fatal heart attack (and the many conspiracy theories surrounding it) that the defendant suffered in his cell. The book is edited by an American academic, Timothy Waters, but contains individual chapters by many authors. It certainly examines “the immature legal project” from a large number of angles and perspectives. As such, selected individual chapters of interest could be read. That being said, this book is really a comprehensive overview of war crime trials for academics and students. It does not make for light reading.

One of the more accessible chapters is authored by the aforementioned Carla Del Ponti. In an incisive and thought-provoking piece she does her own brief dissection of the trial and examines its many warts, laying the blame largely at the door of the trial chamber (one of whose members for part of the process was the Scottish judge, Lord Bonomy), but accepting many faults in the tactics and strategy of her own office. Her claim in relation to “inside witnesses”, i.e. prominent Serbs and former supporters of Milosevic, that the trial prosecutors led by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC “did not fully recognize the risks accompanying” calling them somewhat beggars belief. She is particularly critical as to the length of the trial. However, as far as she is concerned this had nothing to do with her decision to create a joinder indictment so that Milosevic stood trial simultaneously for crimes committed in three different wars – Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Other contributors examine this important issue at length and come to different conclusions as to its wisdom and efficacy.

Del Ponti, along with others, tackles the issue of self-representation. Her plea that this subject requires reconsideration in future trials of a similar type is worthy of further debate. In an interesting chapter Evelyn Anoya of the ICTY’s registry describes how the tribunal was forced to create new administrative procedures to deal with the unrepresented Milosevic. In particular she describes her own role as the “Pro Se Legal Liaison Officer”. The chapter by the leading academic Yuval Shany adds little to the topic. The book fails to examine fully how Milosevic self-representation set a trend in a number of subsequent ICTY cases, in particular that of the Serb politician (and opponent of Milosevic) Vojislav Seselj. He adopted similar tactics but in a far grander, radical and at times contemptuous manner (for which he has been convicted and imprisoned), and is still awaiting judgment over 12 years after his arrest. When at one point a respected and bewigged English counsel was imposed upon Seselj, he memorably told the judges trying him: “This man with a bird's nest on the top of his head… will never be my defence lawyer.”

Milosevic’s trial will go down as a significant historical event, both legally and politically. This worthy book demonstrates its impact and importance as well as bearing testament to its legacy.

The Author
David Josse QC, 5 St Andrews Hill Chambers
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