The effort to bring Slobodan Milosevic to justice is not simply a matter of forcing one man to face charges of war crimes. It's a test for the international community in preventing wartime atrocities against civilians everywhere.
A trial of the former Yugoslav president before the international tribunal at The Hague would set a global standard for prosecuting those most responsible for war crimes, and not just their underlings.
The Balkans are not the only part of the globe where political leaders launched atrocities that went beyond anything that could reasonably be called legitimate military tactics.
Cambodia is presently balking at trying the remaining top Khmer Rouge leaders. In Africa, an international court is struggling to convict those responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocidal massacres. And in Chile, judges are having difficulty putting former dictator Augusto Pinochet on trial.
If Milosevic can be brought before the bar of international justice, that would send an unmistakable message to tyrants and human rights abusers: They won't be left alone.
Not all leaders involved in crimes against humanity can be brought before a court made up of neutral jurists from countries other than the homeland of the accused. Extradition agreements and nationalistic pride come into play. Cambodia especially, whose present leaders were once Khmer Rouge themselves, are reluctant to allow international control.
How much should countries be forced, through economic means, to allow such international trials? Libya was forced by sanctions to hand over suspects in the Pan Am 103 bombing. Is Serbia next?
The problem is that Serbia has a new, democratically elected leadership. Forcing it to hand over Milosevic might jeopardize the rule of Vojislav Kostunica, who defeated Milosevic for the Yugoslav presidency. That's why Mr. Kostunica wants to try the former president at home, and maybe only for economic crimes against Serbs.
That path falls well short of holding Milosevic accountable for the mayhem visited on Kosovo's Albanians during the conflict in 1999. Doubtless his corrupt rule did hurt Serbs, but allegations related to Kosovo, for which he is indicted, must come first - preferably through a trial at The Hague.
Holding a war-crimes trial in Serbia with Serbian judges, as some Belgrade leaders suggest, is unreasonable. The nationalistic passions that Milosevic so viciously exploited are still strong. Any judges could be compromised with threats or other means. Ethnic Albanians from Kosovo would not testify in Serbia. Many Serbs might just see such a trial as merely a way for the present regime to eliminate a political opponent, a sort of victor's justice. And holding a trial in Serbia would not be fair to Bosnia and Croatia, which have co-operated with the tribunal.
The United States and Europe must use patient persuasion and withholding of aid to turn Serbian pride around and show the Serbs that their new democracy has a stake in creating an international deterrent to war crimes.
Handing over Milosevic, hard as it may be for Serb politicians, would serve their country's interest as well as that of the wider world.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society