The international community has once again struck out in its attempts to find a senior Serbian leader criminally liable for attrocities in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

U.N. judges on Thursday acquitted former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic of ordering a deadly campaign of terror against Kosovo Albanians, saying he had no role in what they ruled was a criminal plot to drive ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo.  The tribunal ordered Milutinovic released from custody, but it convicted five other senior Serbs and gave them prison sentences of between 15 and 22 years. It was the court’s first judgment establishing widespread Serb crimes in Kosovo.

Milutinovic’s acquittal was a blow to prosecutors who three years ago lost their chance of convicting former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic of similar crimes when he died of a heart attack before his trial ended.  In what was as close to a guilty verdict for Milosevic himself as the court has ever come, presiding judge Iain Bonomy of Scotland said Milosevic was the most powerful commander of Serb troops and military police who carried out a campaign of murder, rape and deportations that forced nearly 800,000 ethnic Albanians to flee Kosovo before NATO airstrikes forced a Serb withdrawal in mid-1999.

“In practice, it was Milosevic, sometimes termed the ‘Supreme Commander’ who exercised actual command authority over the (Serb army) during the NATO campaign,” Bonomy said.  The court ruled that the plot was led by Milosevic and that Milutinovic had no role.

With Milosevic off the hook, convicting anyone else is rather anti-climactic. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.