MEDFORD, MASS. — Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica may have been swept into power by the strongly democratic yearnings of his people, but he now faces a host of daunting challenges, not the least of which is how to bring to justice the man who masterminded the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnia and Kosovo.
Slobodan Milosevic's victims and many human rights advocates fear that, notwithstanding his indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, Mr. Milosevic will escape justice because Yugoslavia or some other nation will grant him safe haven.
But Yugoslavia's new democrats have higher priorities than dealing immediately with Milosevic. They now are focused on consolidating their hold on government and rebuilding their country's desecrated political and economic institutions.
Whether a trial happens sooner or later, in Yugoslavia or at The Hague, victims and observers should have patience, because bringing Milosevic to justice is in everyone's interest. History shows that a thriving democracy with lasting peace can only be assured when crimes of the past are acknowledged and peoples' need for justice is met.
Even though Mr. Kostunica does not support The Hague tribunal, his administration chose not to "cut a deal" with Milosevic before driving him from power - even after Jiri Dienstbier, the UN human rights envoy for Yugoslavia, announced that he was in favor of granting immunity from prosecution in return for Milosevic's resignation.
Furthermore, Yugoslavia's new foreign minister, Goran Svilanovic, supports the formation of a truth commission of independent experts to investigate responsibility for crimes and the suffering of victims of all parties to the Yugoslav wars, and the opening of an office of the ICTY.
Significantly, Kostunica has not ruled out the possibility of trying Milosevic in Yugoslavia.
But Kostunica has his hands full trying to unify his country, and he doesn't want to alienate any of the constituencies he needs. Those who would rush Milosevic to justice ahead of the other priorities set by Kostunica need to imagine themselves in the new president's shoes before condemning his choices.
At the same time, demands for justice do not disappear with time, as evidenced in the recent upsurge in legal proceedings against Nazi survivors for crimes committed at the time of World War II. Whether Kostunica wants them to or not, those demands will assert themselves onto a democratic agenda and force their way up the priority list.
In time, they will supplant other priorities that he now puts on the front burner. This is what happened in Chile. From the day Augusto Pinochet ceded power, many Chileans called for his prosecution for human rights abuses. Anti-cipating this demand, Mr. Pinochet declared himself "senator for life," with accompanying amnesty from judicial prosecution.
But the longtime dictator's arrogant assumptions caught up with him; he failed to anticipate a dramatic shift in international norms in the 1990s. Following the creation of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and large-scale consensus to create a new International Criminal Court, self-amnesties lost their legitimacy.
Once European governments were willing to arrest Pinochet for crimes he committed in Chile, Chileans demanded the right to bring one of their own to justice. In August, a decade after Chile's return to democracy, the country's Supreme Court stunned the world by declaring that Pinochet, and many of his "amnestied" cadres, could be tried under Chilean law.
The pace of justice in Chile was painfully slow for victims and their families, as it may be in Yugoslavia. But Chile shows that patience pays off.
While the international community seeks to try Milosevic before an international tribunal, The Hague is a long way from Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav people may want to bring Milosevic to justice themselves for the full panoply of crimes he committed, including not only war crimes and crimes against humanity in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, but political fraud, corruption, and massive repression of his own citizens.
As Yugoslavia creates a new democracy, headed by a man whose reputation is founded on his respect for law and the independence of the judiciary, Milosevic's trial in Yugoslavia should not be rejected out of hand by the international community. Ultimately, justice is local. If it can be accomplished close to or where the crimes took place, and with genuine assurances of fairness and due process, then The Hague may not be the best forum. But in the tumult of transition, even that cannot be determined. Kostunica's current reluctance to do more than ensure that Milosevic is permanently politically disabled is understandable.
Peace and justice in Yugoslavia must go hand in hand if future abuses are to be prevented and an enduring democracy established. The Clinton administration's decision to lift sanctions while linking foreign aid to Yugoslavia's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal reflects its respect for the complexity of the problems Kostunica is juggling and its recognition that democracy, peace, and justice are inextricably linked.
Kostunica needs the support, patience, and understanding of the United States - indeed, the international community - as he struggles to set Yugoslavia aright. At the same time, he must understand that if he sweeps justice under the rug, his efforts to secure lasting peace and democracy will be in vain.
Ellen L. Lutz is executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society