Justice for War Crimes

AFTER 10 months of delay and conflict, a special prosecutor has been named to head the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The question is, will Ramon Escovar Salom, attorney general of Venezuela, actually prosecute? In the absence of any real Western effort to stop the mass murder in Bosnia, there must at least be a truthful historical record of what happened.

How vigorously the special prosecutor should push the war-crimes investigation has been hotly contested. Britain and France in the UN Security Council opposed nominees, like Cherif Bassiouni of the United States, who were likely to take their job seriously. Given the current European diplomatic strategy, which involves negotiating with Serbia to bring it back into the community of nations, a process that accuses Serb leaders and generals of war crimes would be very inconvenient. Already the delay in naming a prosecutor has harmed the tribunal's credibility; important evidence and witnesses that should have been pursued last spring must now be pursued immediately.

UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright can help. Mr. Escovar says he can't begin until February. Perhaps not. But the case can't wait. Fortunately, Mr. Bassiouni, the man most familiar with the range and detail of the investigation, heads the tribunal's commission of experts. Ms. Albright should stir Mr. Escovar and Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to allow Bassiouni to move the investigation forward: to seek out funding and send teams to former Yugoslavia.

Bosnia was not a hidden genocide like Cambodia. War took place on TV. Thousands of witnesses have come forth. A State Department official told the Monitor, ``The amount of evidence we have is staggering. Quite clearly a genocide has been conducted by design and by orders.''

Given evidence of atrocities and heinous crimes in Europe in the late 20th century, one might assume alarm bells would ring and that those responsible would be held accountable. This has not been the case. Rather, Western powers have clouded issues and suggested the pursuit of justice is too difficult and unrealistic.

A serious war crimes trial would raise embarrassing questions:

First, why are Western governments negotiating with and supporting leaders who commit war crimes?

Second, is a Serb state created by genocide to become a normal member of the international community?

These aren't abstract issues or questions; they bear directly on the character development and moral tone of the post-cold-war world.

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