Crimes and Punishment

THE struggle for power and authority behind the old Iron Curtain is proving an ugly business. How the multitude of sins and crimes in places like Chechnya and Bosnia will be paid for -- the issue of responsibility -- is a serious question.

The questions arise this week via two significant events. First, the coming to light of atrocities against Muslims in Chechnya by Russian troops, reported in Monday's Monitor by correspondent Peter Ford. Second, the indictment in The Hague of 21 Serbs for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, including a charge against the commander of the Serb-run death camp Omarska for the crime of ''genocide.'' It is the first-ever such charge by an international court.

What links the events is that in both cases the violence continues. The wars are not over. Those responsible for wrongdoing have not been dealt with in a manner comporting with law and justice and conscience.

Thus far, Russian president Boris Yeltsin has done the most to make amends. On Wednesday, in a speech that both polished his image abroad but also contained some expressions of remorse, he admitted that mistakes had been made in the Grozny attack. Now, the question is, What will actually be done about the mistakes? Removing Defense Minister Pavel Grachev is one idea -- though he could be replaced by a tougher general.

It is naive to think the world will stand still and focus on war crimes to the exclusion of the everyday hurlyburly. Yet this should not mean those responsible for crimes against humanity will get away with them. Beyond varying concerns over immediate justice is the real problem of a mentality emerging here and abroad that is willing to excuse ever greater instances of a breakdown in law and accepted norms of behavior.

Yugoslavia is a case in point. It is known the genocide in Bosnia was led from Serbia. The State Department has accused Serb President Slobodan Milosevic of war crimes.

Yet this week diplomats are preparing to appease Mr. Milosevic further by lifting sanctions on Serbia. Moreover, the sanctions would be lifted in violation of the criteria Serbia is supposed to meet. Serbs are not to aid Bosnian Serbs. Yet so far this month, 62 helicopter flights have been observed. Cross border violations are rife -- a story in itself. The US government should not acquiesce in lifting sanctions on Belgrade, without at least genuine compliance.

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