A Milestone Trial

International justice is an evolving, and often controversial, area of law. Its very mention can raise questions about how to reconcile universal ideals with national sovereignty.

But for some crimes, international justice seems the only answer, even if it's an imperfect one.

That's certainly the case with the charges against Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia and leader of Serbia. He could not have received a meaningful trial in Serbian courts. Yet too many nations have a stake in preventing more atrocities like those that took place under his rule to let him escape justice.

The start of his trial this week at the UN tribunal at The Hague - which has the specific mission of trying war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia - could prove a milestone for the idea of justice for crimes that grossly violate international norms.

Prosecutors will try to show the world - and Serbs - how Mr. Milosevic headed a chain of command that led to the horrors of the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Much will depend on the willingness of Milosevic associates to testify.

Milosevic's defense, creative as it may be, is unlikely to outweigh the mounds of documentary and other evidence being presented against him. That doesn't imply a conviction is a foregone conclusion. The fairness of these proceedings is all-important. They should stand as a model for what international justice can be.

Other efforts to redress massive wrongs - such as ethnic genocide in Rwanda or the Khmer Rouge mass murders in Cambodia - have yet to be fulfilled. Cambodia's leaders refuse to cooperate with the UN, and an international court for the Rwanda killings has had limited success, with a mixed reputation in how it is conducting itself.

The Milosevic trial could set a strong precedent for regularized international justice. The US opposes a permanent court, which is being set up this year, because it fears politicized justices could easily convict US soldiers operating as peacekeepers.

But courts with well-chosen justices, with adequate funds, and focusing on a narrow set of crimes that affect humanity do have a place. The biggest challenge is deciding where and when their use is warranted.

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