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A history of political trials

Jun 24, 2011, 2:01 PM | Article By: John Laughland

Political trials do not always deliver justice, says Adam LeBor, But what else do we have?

If a Hollywood scriptwriter had pitched a film idea in which Radovan Karadzic, the fugitive Bosnian Serb leader, was found in a drab Belgrade suburb working as a practitioner of alternative medicine, he would have been laughed out of the editorial meeting.

The idea that the former Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, and Charles Taylor, his Liberian counterpart, would eventually be called to account for their crimes once seemed equally fanciful. Yet Milosevic died in his cell at The Hague, where Charles Taylor is now on trial for war crimes.

John Laughland’s opinion of the evolving legal processes by which dictators and warlords are being put on trial is clear from the title of his previous book, Travesty: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic and the Corruption of International Justice.

It was co-written with Ramsay Clark, a former US Attorney General who helped defend Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, Laughland asks some pointed questions that will discomfit even those who disagree with him. Who has the right to adjudicate the acts of another state? What accountability is there for international tribunals? To what extent are they victors’ justice?

Some answers, I would argue, may be found in the founding documents of the United Nations -its Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Genocide Convention. Article One of the Genocide Convention, for example, states that ‘genocide is a crime under international law which they [signatories] undertake to prevent and punish’.

Laughland’s book opens with the trial of Charles I in 1649 for treachery, an unprecedented event where the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Charles’s courtroom tactics - refusing to recognise the court’s authority, refusing to plea - was to be copied centuries later by Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

Subsequent chapters include usefully detailed accounts of the trials of Louis XVI, Marshal Pétain and Vidkun Quisling; post-war trials in Hungary, Finland and Greece; plus Nicolae Ceausescu, Erich Honecker, Jean Kambanda (a Hutu leader in Rwanda), Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. However, this episodic structure slows down the narrative, and at times the book reads more like a collection of articles than a linked account.

Laughland’s dissection of the flaws and hypocrisies of the Nuremberg trials is a useful reminder to those who hold them up as an exemplar. The 24 defendants were chosen to represent a cross-section of the Nazi leadership, and included two governors of the Reichsbank, Walther Funk and Hjalmar Schacht.

These two men, while essential cogs in the Nazi machine, were arguably far less implicated in war crimes than, for example, Reinhard Gehlen, a general on the eastern front, where many of the most hideous crimes were committed. But politics saved Gehlen. The Allies put him in charge of the nascent West German intelligence service.

Laughland’s critique of the evolving doctrine of ‘command responsibility’, by which commanders may be indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by subordinates, even if they did not order or take part in the events, is flawed but provocative.

He traces it back to Andrei Vyshinskii, Stalin’s prosecutor in the 1930s Moscow show trials, when Old Bolsheviks confessed to vast, imaginary conspiracies. But Laughland’s intellectual rigour evaporates over Slobodan Milosevic, whom he once visited at The Hague.

Laughland writes: ‘To be sure, Yugoslavia gave help to the Bosnian Serb Army and therefore incurred some indirect responsibility for what that army did in Bosnia. But the link between it and Milosevic in Belgrade was tenuous.’

This is utter nonsense. The Bosnian Serb army was the Yugoslav army. Its soldiers simply changed the badges on their uniforms. It kept the same command structure, weaponry, officers and intelligence. It was armed, funded and supplied by Belgrade, which paid its soldiers’ salaries and pension long after the conflict ended in 1995.

Milosevic’s role in the Yugoslav wars is thoroughly documented. Further details of the links between his regime and the course of the Bosnian war will doubtless be revealed at the trial for war crimes of General Momcilo Perisic, Chief of Staff of the Yugoslav army, between 1993 and 1998, which is scheduled to start in October.

Laughland’s obsession with breaking the link between Milosevic and the Bosnian war is unfortunate, both because it is wrong, and because readers with knowledge of the Yugoslav wars will be more likely to question his accounts of other episodes chronicled here.

International criminal justice is a work in process. Slobodan Milosevic’s trial was slow and clumsy, his indictments overlong and complicated.

But just like Charles Taylor , Radovan Karadzic and now former army commander Ratko Mladic, he was at least called to account for his actions.

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