Justice for Criminals of Bosnia

February 24, 1993

There is self-satisfaction in the United Nations Security Council decision to establish a tribunal to try persons committing atrocities in former Yugoslavia. Negative satisfaction, ending the anguish at world indifference to mass killings, rapes and starvations. That is one of the two basic reasons for passing the resolution. The other is that it might -- just might -- deter the people who instigated these atrocities from instigating more. What the tribunal is not likely to do, however, is bring anyone to trial.

A criminal brought to trial in Baltimore has, first, been caught. The justice system is backed up by police and jails. The war crimes trials at Nuremberg, which established the precedent for this resolution, began when the Allies won World War II and locked up the principle German Nazi officials. You cannot try someone until you have caught him. Some judicial systems try in-absentia, for a certain emotional satisfaction, in which case the defendant cannot defend himself but probably is not going to be caught. The United States would oppose that.

The United Nations, which wants to judge the accused criminals of Yugoslavia, principally Serbian, does not wish to catch them first. That would require belligerency, in which the U.N. and its members do not wish to engage. In fact, the U.N. has sent Cyrus Vance as mediator to negotiate with all sides. That role is the opposite of belligerency. The U.N., or any third party such as the United States, cannot be both a belligerent and an honest broker. It has to choose.

Although there are some Serbian leaders with whom the U.N. would not negotiate and others with whom it would not try, there are some who fit both descriptions. Radovan Karadzic, leader of Bosnia's Serbs, for instance. Threatening him with trial is not a good way to lure him to the table. If he is to think of himself as a defendant for mass atrocities -- which is warranted -- Mr. Karadzic is likely to stay in the hills of Bosnia.

The U.N. role in former Yugoslavia has not been belligerent. That is why U.N. soldiers are allowed to pass potentially hostile checkpoints convoying food to starving people. The difference between sympathetic neutrality and belligerence can be hard to keep straight. Candidate Bill Clinton appeared to favor a limited belligerence. President Clinton has been convinced this would put allies doing humanitarian work at risk.

The Security Council decision was in principle. Now U.N. members are going to have to propose a model of war tribunal and the Security Council is going to have to set up the one it chooses. Let us hope it sends a message that deters atrocities and does not obstruct a peace process. But the tribunal is not likely to try anyone unless the United States and United Nations first go to war in Yugoslavia against one side to protect another. There is precious little support for that.

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