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What now for war trials after Milosevic?

Milosevic's untimely death is a reminder that courts aren't the only tool for justice.

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When the team I worked on at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal which indicted Slobodan Milosevic during the Kosovo war, we were making justice "in real time." Time slowed a great deal after that, coming to a stop this week when Mr. Milosevic died. The Serb strongman responsible for so much bloodshed in the Balkans, the master tactician who grasped instinctively for each chance at power even as his kingdom narrowed to a courtroom, has run out of tricks and out of days. He died not as a master of his country, but a prisoner of international justice.

But this is no cause for celebration. Milosevic's death is a blow to the tribunal, which invested years in its flagship case. When he was transferred to The Hague in 2001, hopes were high that the architect of ethnic cleansing would face justice, and a definitive record of the war would be established. Instead, Milosevic will become a grim footnote. It's hard to say he won, but clearly international law hasn't.

The truth is, we expect too much of international justice. Tribunals have proliferated since the cold war, becoming the international community's tool of choice for responding to mass violence. In the process, law has crowded out other options. We condemn amnesties as unacceptable impunity and insist on the absolute priority of criminal justice. But law is a fragile process with uncertain effects. Claims that international courts deter violence, create a record, or promote reconciliation remain speculative.

The tribunal has failed to deter: Both Srebrenica and Kosovo happened on its watch. To some that just shows Milosevic should have been indicted earlier rather than making him a player in the Peace Accords at Dayton, Ohio. Maybe, but then we might not have gotten a Bosnian peace deal. In any event, military force - not threats of prosecution - made our belated interventions in the Balkans credible.


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