With two of the most notorious dictators of recent years – Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein – standing trial, war crimes justice has never had a higher profile. But is there a deterrent in there?

And if the Milosevic trial ends prematurely because of the defendant’s ill-health or if Saddam Hussein successfully presents himself to the Arab world as a martyr, would the risks outweigh the gains?

On one thing most international lawyers and academics can agree: that war crimes justice has undergone a steeper-than-expected learning curve in the last decade.

When the international tribunal for Yugoslavia was established in 1993, relatively little attention was paid to the impact trials would have on the Serbs.

By charging Slobodan Milosevic with genocide, the prosecutors at his trial set the bar as high as they could in international law.

Milosevic has now three months to prepare his case
Under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, there are two constituent elements to establish.

One, the physical killing of members of a racial, national or ethnic group.

The second, an intention to destroy, in whole or in part, such a group.

Now that the prosecution has completed its case after 295 court days, the judges in The Hague will have to determine firstly whether Yugoslav and Bosnian Serb forces set out to destroy Muslims and Croats “as such” – or whether the deaths were an unpremeditated result of their aim to establish Serb control over territory they coveted.

The prosecution has not delivered the spectacular knockout punch which it trailed before the trial began by promising insider evidence of Milosevic’s culpability

And then, of course, there is the question of how far Mr Milosevic has been shown to have exercised de facto authority over the Bosnian Serbs from his base in Belgrade.

Legal sources in The Hague suggest that the prosecution would be feeling more optimistic about its chances if it had been given longer to make its case.

Chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte and her team are also said to be displeased and nervous about a “no case to answer” plea on the genocide charge which it seems the judges will hear.

There are few observers who have written or commented on the Milosevic trial without trailing some baggage behind them.

The international lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC, believes the trial has been scrupulously fair to the defendant.

But then, Mr Robertson is president of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and a fervent advocate of UN-established war crimes tribunals

Both in Belgrade and Banja Luka, trials in the far-away Hague were seen as “victor’s justice”, a view which persisted well after the arrest and indictment of Mr Milosevic eight years later.

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