Crime pays, at least in Yugoslavia

February 01, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Crime pays, at least in the short run. Whether it does so in the long term is open to debate, and to historical and philosophical investigation and speculation. In the former Yugoslavia, it has paid.

Crime has not produced the Greater Serbia sought by Slobodan Milosevic and his associates, but it has produced what amounts to a Greater Croatia, and it has purged -- probably for good -- the three major successor-states of Yugoslavia of their ethnically undesirable citizens. It has even done that for Bosnia-Herzogovina, which declared that it wanted to remain an ethnically heterogeneous state.

If anyone goes to prison for the crimes against humanity committed in the course of this affair, it will be the odd executioner, the free-lance sadist or fanatic, or the local commander ''following orders.'' The major criminals are likely to escape.

War crimes

This is apparent in the glacial lack of enthusiasm displayed by NATO's IFOR commanders for the task of running down those indicted by the international tribunal at The Hague in the Netherlands, charged by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute war crimes in ex-Yugoslavia.

The Hague court so far has indicted 52 people, all Serbs or Croats, but has only one, a minor figure, in custody. Investigation of alleged Bosnian atrocities has been blocked by Serbia's refusal to give the court access to Serbian witnesses. Serbia's President Milosevic, generally recognized as the person chiefly responsible for the war, has not been indicted; the mandate of the court concerns specific atrocities.

IFOR commanders do not want to look for war criminals because their priority assignment is to separate the warring armies and militias, so as to create conditions in which reconstruction can begin and elections be held. The second priority of the American officers in overall charge of IFOR is to avoid NATO casualties -- among Americans in particular, hypersensitive on this issue.

Looking for war criminals is a distraction from peacemaking and an invitation to trouble with the various local armies and militias. Hence while they will certainly do as they are told, the military commanders, and their immediate civilian chiefs, want to shove the war-criminals problem off onto the police forces of the Serb, Croatian and Bosnian governments -- or better yet, onto the U.N. civilian police authority that has yet to become operational, and which, even when it is installed, will have to act through local police.

If they wanted, Washington and the other NATO governments could force compliance by the ex-Yugoslav authorities. Croatia's Franjo Tudjman is heavily dependent upon the U.S. and Germany. Seven Croats have been indicted. He could deliver them to The Hague. But it would be politically costly, and politically uncharacteristic, for him to do so. Until the Serbian military people indicted for atrocities against Croats at Vukovar in 1991 are arrested, Croatian opinion will ferociously oppose sending any of the Croatian accused to The Hague.

Superbly cynical

President Milosevic of the rump-Yugoslavia is superbly cynical, and expedient. He has privately indicated that if NATO insisted, he would have no compunction about dispatching Radovan Karadzic to trial in The Hague. Why not? Mr. Karadzic could someday make trouble for him, having been encouraged to launch Bosnian Serb separatism and revolt, and subsequently been betrayed by Mr. Milosevic.

Mr. Milosevic has also recently indicated to Western visitors that The Hague could have Gen. Ratko Mladic, even though he is still valuable to Mr. Milosevic. The general, like Mr. Karadzic, has been indicted for genocide. But the Serbian president advises NATO not to arrest the general. Mr. Milosevic explains that the Bosnian Serb forces are undisciplined, and after NATO's intervention, and his own signing of the Dayton agreement, they are in a turbulent mood and might erupt. Mr. Milosevic says only General Mladic can control them: Hence, leave him alone.

Wars become peace when the people who have waged the war have exhausted their possibilities. They have what they want, or have discovered that they cannot have it -- or that they cannot afford to have it. This is why the war in Yugoslavia has stopped. All now have done their worst to one another. There is at present no plausible scenario for one side to profit, at acceptable cost, by renewing the war. (That may come later.)

Crime and punishment

The interest the international community has in the indictments and eventual trials in the Netherlands is to reinforce in practice a moral and legal affirmation, that those who commit atrocious crimes in war risk punishment. As this collides with the international community's more urgent interests, the lesson actually taught is likely to be that war criminals can get away with it. That will come as no surprise, but it is an outcome greatly to be deplored.

However, there is another point to be made about war and war crimes. It is the people who have waged the war and committed the crimes who have to live with the consequences.

This war and its genocidal crimes were the product of South Slav society. Nothing the international community or the Hague Court can do will cure that. The Yugoslavs are not collectively guilty. They are collectively responsible, not guilty. The responsibility cannot be discharged at The Hague. It could only be discharged if the war crimes were tried by the fellow citizens of the criminals.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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