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Milosevic the Guilty?

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March 17, 2006

Milosevic the Guilty?

Part one in a five-part series on the former Yugoslavia

by Dru Oja Jay

[ Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four | Part five ]

milosevic_web.jpg Guilty? If the media is going to claim that Milosevic is a genocidal monster, it should point to evidence instead of repeating accusations.
The Associated Press, Reuters and the CBC refer to him as the "Butcher of the Balkans." Making light of his recent death, the Daily Show's Jon Stewart referred to him as a "madman" and a "genocidal maniac". The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders said that he was "considered responsible for 250,000 deaths and the descent of the former Yugoslavia into terrible ethnic warfare." The Globe and Mail compared him to Hitler and named him a "war criminal" in an obituary. "Few of history's dictators can match this grim record," wrote the Toronto Star.

The death of former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic will, it seems, go down in history as the final verdict on his guilt as a mass murderer on the order of Stalin and Hitler.

There's only one thing missing from all the claims of Milosevic's guilt: evidence.

The Associated Press, for example, notes that all "witness testimony is on public record"--indeed, full transcripts of all testimony are available online--but their 1500 word report on Milosevic's crimes does not refer to any of it directly. In an oversight of broad and systematic proportions, precious few of the dozens of stories about Milosevic in the Canadian or American press refer directly to the hundreds of hours of witness testimony.

One can speculate about the reasons for this lack of the most elementary evidence. However, the fact that evidence is not presented in newspapers and broadcast reports threatens to undermine what journalists, politicians and intellectuals from all points on the political spectrum seem to know without any doubt: that Milosevic was a monster.

The media's assertion-based case against Milosevic could be further undermined by journalists who reported on the trial itself.

Neil Clark, covering the UN War Crimes Tribunal for the Guardian in 2003, wrote that "not only has the prosecution signally failed to prove Milosevic's personal responsibility for atrocities committed on the ground, the nature and extent of the atrocities themselves has also been called into question." In the worst massacre that Milosevic had been charged with--at Srebrenica in 1995--the prosecution "produced nothing to challenge the verdict of the five-year inquiry commissioned by the Dutch government--that there was 'no proof that orders for the slaughter came from Serb political leaders in Belgrade.'"

"The trial has heard more than 100 prosecution witnesses, and not a single one has testified that Milosevic ordered war crimes," wrote John Laughland in the British Spectator.

These kinds of verifiable claims threaten to undermine what thousands of Canadian and American journalists, politicians and intellectuals apparently know to be true. Accounts like Clark's and Laughland's are trivially easy to disprove—to prove them wrong, all that is needed is to refer to the testimony that contradicts their claims.

During the breakup of Yugoslavia, previously overlapping and coexisting ethnic groups fought over territory. During the war, it is indisputable that thousands of Muslims, Croats and Serbs were killed in massacres, battles and NATO bombing raids. And hundreds of thousands were indisputably displaced by the conflict. It remains to be proven, however, that Milosevic was singularly responsible for the humanitarian disaster. Some facts suggest otherwise. For example, many Muslim refugees—who the Serbs were accused of "ethnically cleansing"—settled in Serbia in government-funded housing, which NATO later bombed. That said, it remains possible that Milosevic is guilty of the genocide that NATO leaders accuse him of, but evidence needs to be shown of his guilt before it can be concluded. Incidentally, NATO leaders exempt themselves from prosecution in the court where Milosevic stood trial for war crimes prior his death.

Lacking evidence that Milosevic ordered war crimes to be committed, media reports speak of his "ultra-nationalist" appeals to Serbs and his desire for a "greater Serbia". Reuters, the Associated Press and many other outlets frequently refer to a 1989 speech as evidence of Milosevic's embracing of Serb nationalism. Reuters provides the following fragment without context: "They are not armed battles, though such things should not be excluded." The Guardian uses an even smaller fragment, describing how Milosevic "mesmerised the mob by assuring the minority Serbs in the ethnic Albanian province that no one would ever 'beat them' again."

During the same speech that is widely seen as Milosevic's defining moment as an ultra-nationalist, whipping Serbs into a frenzy that led to ethnic cleansing, Milosevic also claimed that "no place in Serbia is better suited than the field of Kosovo for saying that unity in Serbia will bring prosperity to the Serbian people in Serbia and each one of its citizens, irrespective of his national or religious affiliation."

Milosevic continued in his allegedly genocidal fever pitch:

Serbia has never had only Serbs living in it. Today, more than in the past, members of other peoples and nationalities also live in it. This is not a disadvantage for Serbia. I am truly convinced that it is its advantage. National composition of almost all countries in the world today, particularly developed ones, has also been changing in this direction. Citizens of different nationalities, religions, and races have been living together more and more frequently and more and more successfully.

The entire speech, with translations by both the BBC and the US Commerce Department, is widely available. Perhaps there is other evidence available that Milosevic was a rabid nationalist and supporter of ethnic cleansing. Journalists who quote the 1989 speech to support the case, however, are either being disingenuous, or have not read the speech for themselves.

Continue reading Part II

Media Coverage:

» Doug Saunders: Spectre of Milosevic still haunts Balkans

» Reuters: Milosevic carried his defiance to the end

» Reuters: Milosevic dies in jail months before trial verdict

» Associated Press: Ex-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic dies in U.N. prison

Further reading:

» Wikipedia: Slobodan Milosevic

» [Greek Television]: Transcript of interview with Slobodan Milosevic

» Milosevic's 1989 speech

» Alexander Cockburn: Did Milosevic or His Accusers "Cheat Justice"? The Show Trial That Went Wrong

» Paul Craig Roberts (Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan): Was Serbia a Practice Run for Iraq?

» Neil Clark: The Milosevic trial is a travesty

» Diana Johnstone: Srebrenica Revisited

» John Laughland: International law is an ass

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