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The Butcher of the Balkans Meets His Maker — On the Limitations of All Earthly Justice

Slobodan Milosevic’s death by heart attack robs the world of the satisfaction of seeing him convicted of his terrible crimes against humanity. Those who looked to the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague for justice in his case will be denied that satisfaction.

As Stefan Wagstyl of The Financial Times explained neatly, Solbodan Milosevic “could have used his power as the leader of Serbia, the largest republic in the former Yugoslavia, to try to prevent conflict as the country emerged from the collapse of communism.” He did not. Mr. Wagstyl summarized Mr. Milosevic’s crimes and guilt:

Instead, Mr. Milosevic will be remembered for helping to smash Yugoslavia to pieces in three wars over Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in which up to 250,000 people died and many more were left homeless in the worst fighting in Europe since the second world war. Many others contributed to this bloody business, notably Franjo Tudjman, the late president of Croatia, and the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. But Mr. Milosevic bears the greatest responsibility because he was in the best position to pursue a different course. His death robs the international war crimes tribunal of the chance to deliver a judicial verdict. But the evidence presented to the court left little doubt about his moral guilt.

Yes, little doubt indeed. Yet, Mr. Milosevic’s trial had started four years ago, and there was no assurance that he could be convicted, however guilty the court might believe him to be. In his case, we are hauntingly reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s admonition that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

As some will argue, “international justice” often seems to be an oxymoron–more of an illusion than a reality. Any international tribunal must deal with the inevitable clash of moral and legal worldviews that occurs whenever such crimes are to be judged or investigated. Do we really have any confidence in such tribunals run by the same people who run the United Nations, more or less?

Christians must look to this sad affair with an added dimension. We know that all human efforts at achieving justice, however noble, honest, and honorable, will fall short of real justice. At best, we are sinners judging sinners. This is noble work when conducted with honesty, order, and honor, but it is fallible work undertaken by fallible human beings.

Earthly justice, at its best, points to the perfection of God’s righteous and comprehensive justice. The Christian’s hope of justice is necessarily eschatological — looking to that day when the Holy One will judge with righteousness and true justice. A human court can find a murderer guilty and sentence him for his crimes, but it cannot raise the victim to life. The rapist may be convicted and sentenced, but his victim cannot be made whole by action of the court. That quality of justice awaits God’s court and God’s judgment. Slobodan Milosevik did not escape that judgment by his heart attack–nor shall any other creature escape God’s perfect justice.

On that day, there will be only one defense and only one Defender, who will claim his own with a righteous advocacy.

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. [Revelation 20:11-15, esv.]