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Educational Materials


Client: Maclean’s Magazine – In-Class Program

Date: March 2002

Issue: Milosevic’s War Crimes Trial

Introduction: Former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic has been charged with war crimes for ordering or knowing about alleged atrocities that occurred during the Serbian-led war on Kosovo in 1998-99. He is being tried by the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) based in The Hague, Netherlands. Milosevic has refused to accept the legitimacy of the court, refused to enter a plea (the court entered “not guilty” pleas on his behalf), and refused representation by counsel, choosing to conduct his own defense.

What is the background to the 1998 Balkan War?

In 1998, Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) under President Milosevic launched a military assault on Kosovo (a semi-independent province composed largely of ethnic Albanians) to end attacks by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighting for Kosovo’s independence from Yugoslavia.

Following this assault, allegations were made that Serbian troops committed atrocities and conducted ethnic cleansing campaigns to get rid of Kosovo Albanians. In March 1999, U.S.-led NATO forces (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – formed in 1949 as a security alliance to defend the interests of the entire North Atlantic area against the Soviet Union) began a bombing campaign to force Milosevic to withdraw Serbian troops from Kosovo. After 72 days of bombing, Milosevic capitulated and accepted a peace treaty that called for a 50,000-member UN peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

With what crimes has Milosevic been charged?

Following the peace initiative, a forensic team of experts from Canada, the United States, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland searching for evidence of war crimes discovered many mass graves and evidence of massacres, torture and rape. In May, 1999, Milosevic was formally indicted by the UN international criminal tribunal on four counts:

  • One count of deportation of 740,000 Kosovo Albanians (a crime against humanity)
  • Two counts of murdering hundreds of Kosovo Albanians including 342 named people (a crime against humanity and a violation of the customs of war)
  • One count of persecution of Kosovo Albanians on political, racial and religious grounds ( a crime against humanity)

Milosevic fought extradition (formal delivering up of accused to trail) from Yugoslavia to The Hague, even attempting to get elected in the September 2000 elections in the belief that a head of state could not be extradited. However, in June 2001, he was finally extradited to The Hague. The following month, the court entered a “not guilty” plea on his behalf. The International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) began on February 12, 2002. The Chamber is also considering alleged crimes committed by 5 other Serbians.

What is the ICTY and how does it operate?

The International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by the United Nations as an ad hoc criminal tribunal in 1993 to:

  • bring to justice persons allegedly responsible for violations of international humanitarian law (in the former Yugoslavia)
  • render justice to victims
  • deter further crimes
  • contribute to the restoration of peace by promoting reconciliation in Yugoslavia

The ICTY has the authority to prosecute four types of offences:

  1. breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions
  2. violations of the laws or customs of war
  3. genocide
  4. crimes against humanity


  1. An investigation is conducted by the Prosecutor
  2. Indictments must be confirmed by a judge of the ICTY
  3. The trial commences when the accused is physically present in the court
  4. The conduct of the trial draws upon both civil and common law systems
  5. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment, served in one of the states that have signed an agreement with the UN to accept persons convicted by the ICTY.

Operations/Current Statistics:

Budget - $96.4 million (2001)
Staff - 1,188 from 77 countries (2001)
42 persons are currently in custody at the Detention Unit in The Hague; 8 accused have been provisionally released; there are 30 arrest warrants currently outstanding.

What were the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials?

The International Military Tribunal (IMT) was established in Nuremberg,Germany,by the Allies in November 1945 to try 22 leading Nazi Germans indicted on charges of launching an aggressive war, committing war crimes, and committing crimes against humanity. The trial lasted 11 months; 11 persons were sentenced to death by hanging, 3 were acquitted, 7 received prison terms. One accused was never captured.

An 11-nation tribunal in Tokyo prosecuted Japanese officials responsible for military aggression in Asia prior to and during WW2.

Who else was tried for crimes against humanity?

More recently, General Augusto Pinochet, dictator of Chile following a military coup in 1973, was accused of killing thousands during his 17-year rule. In 1998, he travelled to London for health reasons. Spain, which had tried him in absentia (without him being present at the trial) for offences against Spanish nationals in Chile, attempted to extradite him from the U.K. On his return to Chile in 2000, the Chilean Supreme Court stripped him of his senatorial immunity, paving the way for a trial. In July, 2001, the Chilean appeals court ruled the 85-year-old Pinochet was unfit to stand trial by reason of dementia.

Why is the Milosevic trial historic and important?

  • Milosevic is the first sitting head of state in modern times to be indicted for war crimes
  • This is the first trial of its kind since the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials following WW2
  • A fair, unbiased trial that results in justice for Kosovo victims could bolster the U.N.’s proposal for the establishment of an International Criminal Court
  • Since the 1950's, the UN has attempted to establish an International Criminal Court which would have the mandate to try heads of state and leaders of national organizations accused of war crimes and/or crimes against humanity. A UN Committee proposal of 1998 to establish such a court must be ratified by 60 member countries to be approved. (Canada ratified the proposal in July 2000.)
  • Arguments for the establishment of International Criminal Court: national courts often are unwilling or unable to seek justice; a method of bringing to trial the leaders/perpetrators of crimes rather than tarnish a whole people; to record historical truth and acknowledge victims; a symbol of international intolerance for war crimes.
  • Arguments against the establishment of International Criminal Court: an international court might become a politicized institution; the principle overrides national sovereignty; success depends on enforcement powers and ability to extradite accused persons.

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