When a Swiss prosecutor stands up in The Hague on Tuesday and enters the charge of "crimes against humanity" against Slobodan Milosevic, the "trial of the 21st century" will have begun.
That historic label is very apt despite the fact that the century is so new and that Mr. Milosevic is a spent force in the Balkans. What's at stake is the very idea of trying a former head of state on universal principles of justice and law - and, with it, the broader challenge of creating international norms of behavior.
The idea of setting global standards for nations and individuals only took hold in the second half of the 20th century. This trial will be an important marker for the full flowering of that idea in this century.
But despite the triumph of seeing Milosevic in the dock, the trial itself and many events leading up to it will be under scrutiny as object lessons on what to do or not do in the future.
It's essential, for instance, that the judges sitting on the war-crime tribunal for the former Yugoslavia conduct a fair trail so that Serbs can accept the outcome and think about their role during Milosevic's four wars. The tribunal must counter his defense that judges from NATO nations cannot rule on him. Otherwise, a guilty verdict would be seen as "victors' justice."
Western leaders must also explain why they essentially bought the handover of Milosevic from Serbia with $1.28 billion of aid and showed disregard for the legal methods used to extradite him. Will they do the same to force the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia? Or is the loss of some 200,000 lives in the Balkans more important than a million lost in Cambodia?
The tribunal must also explain why it didn't indict Croatia's late leader, Franjo Tudjman, whose forces committed many atrocities. The West, too, must ask why it worked with Milosevic as a peacemaker, but now tries him as a warmonger. Such unevenness of international justice, whether real or perceived, must be explained, and then averted in the future, if the world is to have a functioning, permanent international war-crimes tribunal. National leaders, too, need to know that politics will not enter into the picture.
Milosevic's trial may last up to two years. That's valuable time for the world to patiently perfect this idea of universal justice.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor