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A History of Political Trials

From Charles I to Charles Taylor

John Laughland

The modern use of international tribunals to try heads of state for genocide and crimes against humanity is often considered a positive development. Many people think that the establishment of special courts to prosecute notorious dictators represents a triumph of law over impunity. In A History of Political Trials, John Laughland takes a very different and controversial view. He shows that trials of heads of state are in fact not new, and that previous trials throughout history have themselves violated the law and due process. It is the historical account which carries the argument. By examining trials of heads of state and government throughout history – figures as different as Charles I, Louis XVI, Erich Honecker, Saddam Hussein and Charles Taylor – Laughland shows that modern trials of heads of state have ugly historical precedents. In their different ways, all the trials he describes were marked by arbitrariness and injustice, and many were gross exercises in hypocrisy. Political trials, he finds, are only the continuation of war by other means. With short and easy chapters, but the fruit of formidable erudition and wide reading, this book will force the general reader to re-examine prevailing opinions on this subject.
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17 Kosovo and the New World Order: the Trial of Slobodan Milošević


Like Jean Kambanda’s conviction for genocide in 1998, the accusation published the following year (on 27 May 1999) against the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milošević, by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), made legal history. As supporters of international humanitarian law and judicial and military interventionism enthusiastically pointed out, this was the first time that an indictment had been issued against a sitting head of state by an international tribunal. In fact, of course, Marshal Pétain and Vidkun Quisling had also been indicted while in office, albeit by national authorities.

Slobodan Milošević was indicted at the height of the seventy-four-day bombing campaign (25 March 1999 to 4 June 1999) by NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance. He had become a hate figure in the West by that time, blamed for all the Balkans’ woes and accused of being a nationalist, a racist, and a determined war criminal. Like the indictment, the 1999 NATO bombing campaign was itself legally novel. The postwar international system, created out of the ruins of World War II, was based on the ‘Nuremberg principles’ that starting a war is the supreme international crime, and on the concomitant principles of the sovereign equality of states and the rule against intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia was precisely intended to overthrow these rules and replace them with new principles which would permit what had previously been solemnly...

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