How should leaders of the international community - both those gathered at the NATO summit in Madrid, and those not present there - react to instances of genocide or other gross abuses of human rights?
The possible locating of Cambodia's Pol Pot, new options for arresting Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and the UN's debate with Congo's Laurent Kabila over the investigation into the recent killings in the east of the country - these developments all raise again, and with great urgency, the question of global crime and punishment. How the world's leaders respond to these challenges as we approach the new millennium will have an impact in areas far beyond the countries immediately concerned.
With or without the arrest of a Karadzic or a Pol Pot, or a thoroughgoing investigation in eastern Congo, the road to reconciliation and rebuilding in Bosnia, Cambodia, and the former Zaire will continue to be fraught with difficulties. But the stance that world leaders take toward Karadzic, Pol Pot, Kabila, and other accused rights abusers will also be important for the rest of us - those of us fortunate enough to live in countries not plagued at present by civil war or domestic dictators. For it is our countries that have the strength, the self-confidence, and the staying power to lay the foundation for a world without war in the decades ahead.
We can build such a world, and we should do it. And we should envisage the war-free zone as encompassing not just the "white" majority countries that make up the memberships of NATO or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but all the world's peoples.
If we fail to take up this challenge, any areas of conflict and abuse that we continue to tolerate would only, certainly, become worse. The desperation of their peoples would deepen and would end up threatening not only the security of children in those zones but that of our children and grandchildren, too.
As in any plan for a new society, so in the new world that we can build, the issue of crime and punishment needs to be carefully thought out and resolutely pursued. The existing international community has done some of the necessary thinking, but its actions are still in the stage of infancy.
We have an impressive international convention against genocide, and international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. But the genocide convention's provisions for participating governments to launch formal prosecutions of suspected offenders have never been pursued very far - even in a case as well documented as that of the Bosnian-Serb campaign against Muslims or Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's campaigns against the Kurds. (By requiring that the intent of alleged perpetrators to destroy the members of a target group be proved, above and beyond the genocidal effect of their actions, the text of the convention makes it hard to envisage any successful prosecutions anywhere.)
MEANWHILE, the tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have come nowhere near laying their hands on top-level alleged perpetrators like Karadzic or former henchman Ratko Mladic - and Western peacekeepers in Bosnia resolutely refrain from taking the few steps needed to arrest them.
Bosnia is one of the places where the war-free and war-plagued halves of the world sit face to face. If the law-based approach to world affairs that the Western nations have advocated for centuries should prove ineffective in Bosnia - in the heart of the European landmass - then the continued vitality of that worldview will be badly, perhaps irreparably, damaged.
NATO leaders meeting in Europe have crucial responsibilities in that continent. Making effective moves for the arrest of Karadzic, Mladic, and company is one necessity. So, too, is starting to plan the building of an international coalition to bring to justice Pol Pot, Laurent Kabila, and other suspected abusers around the world.
At the domestic level, it is only recently that many Western societies have understood that abuse of family members inside a home is a matter of concern for all of society. Now the same lesson, regarding gross abusers of human rights and freedoms around the world, needs to be understood and acted on at the highest global levels.
* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.