Slobodan Milosevic's transfer to the United Nations war crimes tribunal is a great triumph for the victims of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and will help solidify the emerging system of international justice, said Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch said the prosecution of a former head of state before an international tribunal would create a groundbreaking precedent in international law.
"This is a great day for the victims of war in the former Yugoslavia," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program.
Serbian authorities today surrendered Milosevic to representatives of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The former Yugoslav president had been in a Belgrade prison since his arrest on April 1 on domestic corruption charges.
"Some people have argued that sending Milosevic to The Hague would derail the democratic transition underway in Belgrade," said Dicker. "On the contrary, this is a victory for the rule of law in Serbia."
The surrender of Milosevic makes clear that no leader accused of crimes against humanity is beyond the reach of international justice, Human Rights Watch said.
Today's transfer appears to enjoy the support of most members of the government in Belgrade and a majority of the public. The latest polls indicate that 48 percent of respondents support cooperation with the tribunal, while only 36 percent oppose it. While mounting international pressure in recent weeks contributed to this change of heart, it also appears to stem from an increasing willingness by the Serbian people to come to terms with the legacy of the Milosevic era, Human Rights Watch said. Recent discoveries of mass graves of Kosovo Albanians, near Belgrade and in other parts of Serbia, contributed to the change.
On May 24, 1999, the tribunal indicted Milosevic, along with four other senior officials and officers, for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Yugoslav and Serbian troops under their command in Kosovo in early 1999. The crimes include the slaughter of hundreds of ethnic Albanians, forcible deportations of hundreds of thousands of people, and persecution based on racial, religious, and political identification.
"The surrender of Milosevic creates a positive momentum for the arrest and surrender of other indictees," Dicker said. He urged NATO troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina to arrest all indictees still at large in that country, including Radovan Karadzic, the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and Gen. Ratko Mladic, the wartime military leader.
It is believed that twenty-six indictees currently live in Republika Srpska, which is a part of Bosnia, and eleven more live in Serbia. Yugoslav authorities have recently submitted to a district court in Belgrade a demand for surrender to the tribunal of three former Yugoslav army officers.
Human Rights Watch urged the Yugoslav authorities to surrender the remaining indictees to the war crimes tribunal.