Why Doesn't the US Arrest War Criminals?

Following the British and Dutch example in Bosnia could deter future crimes

On Dec. 17, Dutch troops in Bosnia arrested two Croats who were indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This action, like the British arrest operation in Prijedor last July, stands in vivid contrast to the policy of inaction by the United States and other governments contributing troops to the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR).

The Clinton administration agrees that alleged war criminals should be brought to justice, or so it would have us believe. The administration has invested considerable time, resources, and political pressure in helping the ICTY succeed. Yet we continue to receive reports from the media that paint a completely different picture.

For example, on Dec. 9, The Washington Post exposed the apparent policy of the US and other NATO governments toward Bosnian war crimes as an embarrassing paragon of Orwellian doublespeak. The official policy of SFOR is to arrest war-crimes suspects when they are encountered in the normal course of its duties, if the tactical situation permits. However, reports have made it clear for some time that the US and many of its partners in SFOR decided long ago that there would never be an encounter in which the tactical situation permitted an arrest.

The Post article described an incident in which Miroslav Bralo, an indicted war-crimes suspect, tried to surrender to Dutch SFOR troops. Because the troops did not know at that time that Bralo had been indicted by the ICTY, they did not arrest him and instead wrote down his address.

When it was later established that Bralo was indeed under indictment and the tribunal asked SFOR to arrest him, the Post states that US Army Maj. Gen. Jack Nix obstructed efforts to take Bralo into custody, even though Bralo presumably would not have offered resistance and even though the US and other governments are required under United Nations Security Council Resolution 827 to take all measures necessary to support the work of the tribunal.

Similarly, the Oct. 15 broadcast of CBS's Public Eye showed a film of two French soldiers sitting at a cafe in Foca near another war-crimes suspect who was known to be under indictment. The CBS crew identified and located the suspect easily. When the journalists later asked a French SFOR captain why the indictee had not been arrested, the French officer replied, "We must have good relations with the community and not shock them."

There is no doubt that such arrests carry short-term risks of casualties, disruption, and "shock" in the local community. And no one is diminishing the tragedy of casualties. But the relatively low-key reaction of Bosnian Serbs following the successful arrest operation by British troops in Prijedor last July suggests that fears of short-term destabilization may be exaggerated.

Meanwhile, what about the long-term risks of fostering greater instability and encouraging future crimes against humanity by our policy of announcing to the world that we are unwilling to use our military forces in any situation unless we can virtually guarantee in advance that there will be no US casualties? Why does the Clinton administration appear so unconcerned about the judgment of future generations who, when reading about this period, will surely wonder in dismay at US efforts to run from so many opportunities to bring war-crimes suspects to justice?

The administration undoubtedly will point to its financial and logistical support of the tribunal and its policy of pressuring authorities in the former Yugoslavia to surrender war-crimes suspects as evidence of its pursuit of justice. These are indeed commendable initiatives. However, the daily avoidance by US SFOR troops of their legal and moral duty to take suspects into custody seriously undermines all that we have invested in helping the tribunal succeed.

It is essential for the US and its allies to be active participants in the quest for justice in Bosnia, and not only for the future of peace in the region (it is, in many cases, accused war criminals who are preventing refugees and displaced persons from returning to their homes and who are attacking and intimidating political opponents).

The deterrence of future human-rights crimes everywhere becomes much more difficult because we are building a track record of weakness and vacillation in preventing and punishing these crimes. Our failure to arrest and prosecute war-crimes suspects is tantamount to an announcement that these abuses, although distasteful, are acceptable.

The more we fail to meet our obligation to punish human-rights crimes, the more likely it is that the US will be called upon to send peacekeeping forces repeatedly to deal with future ethnically and religiously based violence.

Finally, US inaction on arrests of Bosnian war-crimes suspects, and the reported action of General Nix, make for a profound betrayal of our national values. President Clinton bypassed a perfect opportunity to state a strong position and to reaffirm those values when in a Dec. 18 press conference, he suggested that peace could be achieved in Bosnia without the arrest of Radovan Karadzic. He should have made clear that our goal is to see all war criminals meet justice before the tribunal.

Time is running out, Mr. President, for you to earn a respected place in history by reversing US hypocrisy on war crimes. Time is running out for you to prevent us from having to struggle for an answer when, years hence, our grandchildren ask us why the world not only allowed war crimes to be committed in Bosnia, but also why the US consciously avoided doing what it could to bring the guilty to justice.

* Gay Gardner is the Washington representative for the Balkans Coordination Group of Amnesty International USA.

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