The Hangman Cometh

October 10, 1992

Other international proclamations of horror at the butchery in the former Yugoslavia have brought little result, so it would be foolish to expect much of the U.N. Security Council resolution to investigate atrocities in the ethnic strife there. As a practical matter, it will take months of tranquillity to establish, legally, whether war crimes have been committed and who is responsible.

That tranquillity is nowhere in sight. But there can no longer be a question that there has been systematic, large-scale murder -- not just hot-blooded slayings in battle or civil strife but cold, calculated murder of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prisoners and non-combatants. Prisoners, mostly Bosnian Muslims, released from Serbian camps through the International Red Cross tell tales of horror on a scale unmatched in Europe for a half-century. The physical evidence is still lacking, but the testimony can no longer be doubted.

Nor can there be any question where the principal blame rests. There is disgrace enough to go around for all the warring nationalist militias, but most of the blood is on Serbian hands. And no prattle about historic enmity or euphemisms about ethnic cleansing can disguise what is happening. People are being slain simply because of their heritage. There are all sorts of ugly words to describe such bestial behavior. Atrocity may be the mildest, but it will do.

What can the rest of the world do about it? On the record so far, not much. The carnage will not stop until the fighting does, and the western world has been conspicuously unsuccessful in accomplishing that. In fact, more people -- especially children -- may be victims in the coming months of a harsh winter and the blockade of food and medicine than die from bullets and clubs. Still, the threat of an international commission to seek evidence of war crimes is an important first step. Sooner or later, the weight of international revulsion at the carnage -- most conspicuously by Serbs but also by Croats and Bosnians -- must have an inhibiting effect.

The precedent set by the war-crimes trials at Nuremberg fell victim to the Cold War in the following decades. Great-power rivalry blocked action against massacres in places like Cambodia and Indonesia. But the U.N. Charter and Declaration of Rights have taken on meaning again. The hangman's noose could swing again in central Europe.

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