Nazi war criminals received the verdicts of the Nuremberg tribunal 50 years ago last week. That milestone of justice, for the first time prosecuting those responsible for carrying out a national policy of genocide and cruelty, has both inspired mankind and left it wondering how to follow such a remarkable precedent.
The atrocities, sadly, didn't end with the Nazis. Since World War II, ethnic and civil conflicts have all too often spawned mass executions, tortures, and other criminal excesses of war.
But not until the particular horrors of Bosnia did the world community again erect a formal structure to deal with crimes against humanity.
When genocidal terror struck the central African country of Rwanda, the newly formed International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague broadened its reach. Investigations and hearings are proceeding on both fronts, Bosnia and Rwanda.
But progress is snail-paced. There is nothing like the world consensus that drove Nuremberg. The international jurists have tried, but largely failed, to convince Americans and Europeans that indicted war criminals ought to be vigorously pursued and brought to trial. The politics, and supposed explosiveness, of such action have been too daunting.
The tribunal's new chief prosecutor, Canadian judge Louise Arbour, has expressed concern that the slow pace is breeding cynicism, and that, eventually, political compromise will set in and amnesties will be issued.
That would be a poor follow-through, indeed, on Nuremberg. The terrible, hateful deeds in Bosnia and Rwanda demand the application of justice.
The Hague tribunal, like Nuremberg before it, champions civilization against barbarism. If its work isn't adequately supported, and the crimes it seeks to prosecute are allowed to fade into history, barbarism wins - and is all too likely to reappear.