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What now for war trials after Milosevic?

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Milosevic's death means no verdict, denying the tribunal the chance to establish a definitive record. Yet this only highlights the problem with expecting international justice to play a truth-telling role in the first place. Courts don't write histories; prosecutors go for conviction, not a record. Indeed, one problem with the prosecution's case was that it tried to tell the whole story of the war and drowned in its own sprawling narrative.

Nor has the tribunal contributed to regional reconciliation. Few Serbs accept the tribunal's legitimacy. Former Yugoslavia's other communities may praise the tribunal when it convicts their enemies but not when it convicts one of their own. In Bosnia, reconciliation was never going to be easy, but the tribunal has failed to create common ground among its peoples.

And what are the costs? International trials are slow. They are expensive, drawing resources from other initiatives. More fundamentally, fetishizing law narrows our options for supporting transitional societies. Trials are important, but it's wrong to prioritize convictions over peace and stability: Sometimes insisting on arrest can destabilize fragile states.

Yet without missing a beat, international law turns from disappointment to the next indictee who is key to everything. Now that Milosevic is dead, focus has shifted to Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadjic and Ratko Mladic as the key players who must be brought to justice. I, too, hope they are tried, but only if it contributes to regional stability, not because outsiders need a villain in the dock.

Some interpret Milosevic's death in a cell as a metaphor for justice, but international criminal law does not work that way: Milosevic died an alleged war criminal, not a proven one. In our haste to reaffirm international justice after his death, let's remember what his life shows about the limits of that project. What can tribunals do, and what can't they? The answer is mixed. Courts can produce individual justice, but not necessarily international justice. Their ability to deter war, define truth, or promote reconciliation is unproven.

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