The extension of the rule of law to the battlefield and its aftermath

March 14, 1997|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- After a difficult and slow start, the United Nations war-crimes tribunals are hitting their stride.

The new U.N. secretary general, Kofi Annan, has purged the incompetents at the Arusha, Tanzania, tribunal and we can expect it now to move more rapidly in bringing to trial the suspects it has in detention, accused mass-murderers from Rwanda.

In The Hague this week began the trials of three Muslims and a Croat accused of war crimes against Serbs at a prison camp in 1992.

In all, 74 men have been indicted, most of them Serbs.

Faltering steps

This is progress, the first faltering steps of the extension of the rule of law to the battlefield and its aftermath.

Unlike Nuremberg and the Tokyo trials after World War II that completed their business and Jonathan Power

disbanded, these new institutions and procedures offer a continuing evolution of the world's growing sense of a common humanity and the need for a rule of law against violence and mayhem.

But the pace needs to be quickened. As in riding a bicycle, to slow down is to fall off.

The Dayton peace agreement that brought a negotiated settlement to the war in Bosnia specifically provided that the leaders, not the followers, were to face justice.

Yet the indicted Bosnian Serbian war leader, Radovan Karadzic, and his military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, walk free. Slobodan Milosevic, who started the war, remains in power as president of Serbia to strike business deals with the likes of Douglas Hurd, the former British foreign secretary turned National Westminster Bank rainmaker.

Cynicism and stalemate

The alternative to the full application of the Dayton accords is cynicism and stalemate. Yet there is another argument. If the objective of international intervention is to stop the fighting, won't an attempt to arrest the warlords reignite the violence.

It depends on the timing. Who would have thought that Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama would have submitted to arrest and trial in the U.S.? Those who knew him best thought that his response to the American invasion in 1989 would be to take to the jungle, blow a hole in the Gatun dam and drain the Panama Canal. President Bush's timing was impeccable.

And if the ex-Yugoslav states get through this summer without a renewal of serious violence, a quick surprise commando job later this year, as winter returns and economic sanctions cloud the future, could probably remove Messrs. Karadzic and Mladic without great upheaval or serious repercussion. There's plenty of time to plan.

The next step

The next step is a permanent international criminal court. The homework has been done over many years; with political will, one could be set up fairly quickly.

For the moment it is ensnared in the U.N.'s Sixth Committee, sniped at from one side by China and India, and from the other by the United States.

Last year President Clinton gave his endorsement to the idea of the proposed court, but American diplomats are trying to weaken its independence by demanding that it be under the authority of the Security Council.

The present draft is too weak, permitting the court, unlike the present tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, to take jurisdiction only if a defendant's own national courts prove unable or unwilling to try a case.

The development of international law in the second half of the 20th century is one of the outstanding achievements of our age. But the work is long and the critics and cynics are many.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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