IN the terrible tale of how the United Nations and Western governments have betrayed the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, one sub-theme stands out as admirable. This is the record of the International Criminal Tribunal on Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), set up by the UN with valuable support from Washington.
ICTY's workings have been slow, but methodical. It was established in May 1993, but only in July 1994 did the Security Council name an effective prosecutor. Its choice was Justice Richard J. Goldstone of South Africa. Last November, Mr. Goldstone's office issued its first three indictments, and in April the first of those accused appeared before the court.
What satisfaction can such proceedings provide for the people of Bosnia? In the case of all those indicted to date, the satisfaction is probably limited. Though the crimes of which they are accused include killings, torture, and rape, all these men occupied fairly lowly positions in the ethnic-Serb militias in Bosnia. But Goldstone and his team seem determined to go for the top as well. In May, they sought and won a ruling from the ICTY bench requesting the Bosnian government to defer to ICTY jurisdiction in cases being prepared against Bosnian-Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and Mico Stanisic. Formal indictments are expected to follow.
How can this happen at the same time that envoys from other branches of the United Nations, and from the United States, are actively courting the goodwill of these men? Well, that's what happens when you set up an independent judiciary - and let's hope that the UN criminal tribunal manages to keep its independence.
Goldstone's personal record on this score is encouraging. In 1989, he headed an investigative commission whose insistence on independence played a crucial role in South Africa's move toward democracy. And in a recent interview in his office in The Hague, he assured me that, ''So far, I've come across no political pressures whatever to lay off my work here.''
But what about the chances of the criminal tribunal actually being able to bring Bosnian-Serb leaders to trial? The prosecutor promised that his office would do what it could to achieve this, though ICTY has to rely on national governments to extradite those it charges. In the case of the Bosnian-Serb leaders, there is a high probability they could elude detention for some time. Would that make Goldstone's efforts worthless?
''No,'' stressed the prosecutor, ''... the essence of justice is an acknowledgment by society of injustices. This can occur in a number of ways. It can come through the issuing of a legal finding, or through publicizing the details of an indictment and continuing to seek the appearance of the accused before the court.''
Goldstone was at pains to point out the human as well as the legal aspects of ICTY's work. ''The satisfaction of the victims of crime is important,'' he explained. ''It is crucial to starting the healing process after such a trauma. I strongly believe in the value the justice system has to offer in serving the interests of healing, especially healing mental wounds.''
This thinking, as well as the tight constraints on the tribunal's resources, has led him to head for the top in his investigations. ''Necessarily, a higher leader has affected more victims than a lower official,'' he argued.
After ICTY was set up, a parallel court was created for Rwanda, with Goldstone also its prosecutor. Through these two ground-breaking courts, he is eager to establish that every man and woman on earth carries personal responsibility not to engage in or direct the kinds of atrocities that Bosnia and Rwanda have seen in recent years.
Having this principle established may give some small consolation to survivors of the atrocities in both countries. But if the men who head the Bosnian-Serb apparatus for ''ethnic cleansing'' stand openly accused as international criminals, it will, in addition, be harder for national governments or UN envoys to continue dealing openly with them.
Maybe that would finally cause the UN and Western governments to reconsider their policy of appeasing these leaders? Thus far, nothing else - not even the clearly visible backfiring of the policy to date - seems to have had this effect.