Slobodan Milosevic is no hero

Efforts to deny indisputable atrocities are more than fading remnants of discredited regimes.

Netherlands: Milosevic
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic appears at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague in July 5, 2004 [Getty]

Most of the world’s attention focuses on today’s humanitarian crises. This is understandable. Preventing and ending armed conflicts must be the first priority, particularly in the face of immense and ongoing civilian suffering.

Yet it is important not to lose sight of what happens after conflicts are over. Years of dedicated effort are needed to secure the peace and rebuild order.

In the 1990s, conflicts in the former Yugoslavia transfixed the world much as Syria does today.

Since the Yugoslav wars were finally brought to an end, the international community has invested significant efforts to help restore peace and security in the Western Balkans. Meaningful progress has been achieved in critical areas such as democratisation, particularly through Euro-Atlantic integration and the European Union accession process.

The return of dangerous rhetoric

However justice and reconciliation – essential pillars for building sustainable peace – have faced far more opposition.

Initially, some progress was achieved, supported by far-sighted leaders such as the late Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Dindic and Croatian President Stjepan Mesic.

In the past few years, though, the situation has greatly deteriorated, with the return of rhetoric and policies not seen since the outbreak of the conflicts.

Some government officials throughout the region regularly misrepresent and disregard the judicial and historical record.

The denial of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes is almost commonplace today. Convicted war criminals are being publicly lauded as heroes.

Recent commemorations of tragedies have been used to inflame tensions and retrench divisions. These trends paint a worrying picture of how those domestic politicians throughout the region are shaping public opinion.

While Milosevic did not face final judgment in the courtroom, the facts and evidence remain. Today, any member of the public can access the ICTY's judicial records and read the evidence.


Last week marked a new low. To widespread surprise, a thin pretext was seized in an attempt to publicly absolve former President of Serbia Slobodan Milosevic, of responsibility for the atrocities committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Some, including the Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, contend that earlier this year the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) exonerated Milosevic in its trial verdict convicting former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

The arguments are not only misguided, but wrong. The only person on trial in Karadzic’s case was Karadzic himself.

Insulting the victim

But the key point is that these arguments ignore historical facts established by the evidence. Revisionism not only insults victims; it holds a society back.

The ICTY Office of the Prosecutor indicted Milosevic for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo.

Our prosecutors introduced immense evidence – more than 350 witnesses and 5,700 documents comprising 150,000 pages – demonstrating his alleged criminal responsibility. Regretfully, he died in 2006 before his trial could be completed and a verdict entered.

OPINION: The Radovan Karadzic verdict will change nothing

Yet, while Milosevic did not face final judgment in the courtroom, the facts and evidence remain. Today, any member of the public – and any government official – can access the ICTY’s judicial records and read the evidence. Vital information can also be found in Serbia’s state archives.

Even in the absence of a criminal verdict, history’s judgment will be that Milosevic played a central role in fostering ethnic cleansing campaigns throughout the former Yugoslavia.

Isolation and stagnation

The ICTY has always adhered to the principles that accused are only prosecuted for their individual criminal responsibility, and that no people bear collective responsibility for the crimes of their leaders.

Yet equally, all people have the right to know what was done in their name. And with that knowledge, progress and reconciliation require acceptance of clear, historical facts, no matter how uncomfortable those facts may be. Revisionism and denial lead only to isolation and stagnation.

More accountability for atrocity crimes is urgently needed throughout the former Yugoslavia.

OPINION: Does Europe judge Radovan Karadzic or itself?

Unfortunately, for every country in the region there are legitimate doubts about the commitment to impartial and independent justice. Too often false equivalencies and appeals to ethnic victimhood are used to justify inaction and widespread impunity.

There is still time to take the right path. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, brutal insults to victims by denying the crimes against them must stop.

In Croatia, all those who were forced to flee their homes, whatever their ethnicity, must be recognised and protected.

In Serbia, the new government must demonstrate that its commitment to prosecute all war crimes cases is not only words, but the road map for real action.


Whether from intent or neglect, relations between the countries of the Western Balkans are at their worst point in years.

Efforts to rehabilitate those like Milosevic, or deny indisputable atrocities like the Srebrenica Genocide, are more than fading remnants of discredited regimes.

State and political officials throughout the former Yugoslavia must make a choice. To keep stoking the fires of ethnic nationalism by denying the truth and turning neighbours into objects of fear.

Or to accept that there were immense wrongdoings in the past; bring the perpetrators to justice and move forward together on the path to solidarity and lasting peace.

Serge Brammertz is the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.