Peace and war crimes in Bosnia Worthy goals in conflict: Muslim seizure of Serb suspects on summit agenda.

February 16, 1996

WITH THE CONVENING of an emergency Balkan summit in Rome this weekend, the international community confronts two worthy objectives that are not wholly compatible. First is the imposition of peace in Bosnia by a U.S.-led NATO force of 60,000. Second is a precedent-setting attempt to bring suspected war criminals to justice.

That these two goals can cross-hatch was vividly illustrated in recent days when Bosnian Muslim troops detained Bosnian Serb military personnel and thereby set off an international uproar. Two of the officers captured were flown in U.S. aircraft to the Hague where they were jailed by the International War Crimes tribunal even though they had not been previously indicted. In return, the Muslim-controlled Bosnian government promised it would no longer "unilaterally" detain Serb suspects.

Bosnian leaders retaliated by cutting off contact with the NATO command in defiance of the Dayton peace agreements. The dispute also revealed differences between the Pentagon, which desperately wants to avoid "mission creep" of the kind that led to the Somalia debacle, and the State Department, which wants vigorous prosecution of war criminals.

Attending the summit in Rome will be the presidents of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia. Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, especially, can have no desire to promote war crimes trials since he could wind up in the dock. But his cooperation in the peace process has been secured not just by his desire for an end to economic sanctions but by information on his alleged complicity gathered by U.S. intelligence. In this context, pursuit of war crimes trials may help rather than hinder the peace process.

If those responsible for mass killings, rape and torture actually face justice, it will be a landmark development. After World War II, the victorious allies brought the vanquished to trial at Nuremberg and Tokyo. This time it is up to a U.N. commission formed in 1993 by the U.N. Security Council to try to impose justice even as conflicts are still going on.

Richard Goldstone, the white liberal South African who is the tribunal's chief prosecutor, says that on the success or failure of his efforts rests "the whole future of the enforcement of international humanitarian law." He is an opponent of amnesty, holding that only the revelation of unpleasant truth can free nations from their compromised pasts. And he sees the need for the establishment of a permanent war-crimes court as a deterrent to atrocities in a world littered by conflict.

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