NATO has finally broken the cycle of impunity that had hitherto characterized the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Last week, in an attempt to arrest two indicted war criminals, NATO forces killed one and arrested the other in a bold and professional move that has transformed and reinvigorated the peace process.
But to build on this breakthrough, it must be followed by a sustained public-information campaign.
The two indicted war criminals, Simo Drljaca and Milan Kovacevic, were not minor figures. They were as notorious as indicted war criminals come, second only in importance to Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. If anyone personified the evil of the Bosnian conflict, it was these two men.
And if there was a heart of the Bosnian darkness, it was Prijedor. Drljaca and Kovacevic masterminded and oversaw ethnic cleansing in and around Prijedor. They set up and presided over the concentration camps of Keraterm, Trnopolje, and Omarska, from where footage of starving inmates first alerted the world to the horror of what was taking place in Bosnia in the summer of 1992.
As Muslims and Croats were expelled, Drljaca and Kovacevic acquired great wealth by appropriating their abandoned properties and possessions. For the next five years they remained above the law, running Prijedor as their personal fiefdom. But no longer.
Kovacevic is now awaiting trial in The Hague. His victims will get their day in court. Since Drljaca died in a shootout, the extent of the atrocities committed under his auspices will not be heard in court. They are, however, cataloged in a remarkable document published by Human Rights Watch last year called "Reaping the Rewards of Ethnic Cleansing in Prijedor."
Neither Drljaca's nor Kovacevic's faces appear on the infamous war criminals' poster that lists the first 74 indictees. Instead, both were sealed indictments: The men had been indicted, but the charges had not been made public. Moreover, there are many more sealed indictments. As a result, all who have blood on their hands on all sides of the Bosnian conflict can no longer sleep easily.
Despite the death of Drljaca, the snatch operations must be considered a resounding success. To build on the momentum, however, it is critical to launch a sustained public-information campaign explaining the significance of the action to all Bosnians - and, in particular, to Bosnian Serbs.
A difficult task for NATO
The state-controlled Bosnian Serb news media and Republika Srpska leadership have reacted predictably, describing the operations as criminal acts and Drljaca's death as the murder of an innocent. Meanwhile, the Bosnian Muslim news media has gloated in triumph. The first Bosnian Serb to be convicted for war crimes, Dusan Tadic (also from near Prijedor), was sentenced this week to 20 years imprisonment. Again, the Bosnian Serb news media lionized a Serb martyr and the Bosnian Muslim media cheered.
For the sake of the peace process and the future of Bosnia as a multinational state, it is critical that all Bosnians come to respect the work of the International War Crimes Tribunal and understand that the NATO-led operations were aimed at individuals indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity - and not Serbs in general. It should be made clear that NATO has done a great service to Serbs by removing two indicted war criminals from their midst.
Given years of brainwashing, this will be no easy task. It may also prove difficult because of a lack of cooperation from Bosnian Serb leaders. According to United Nations officials, the Bosnian Serb authorities have threatened retaliation against the recent NATO operations.
At the very least, NATO must attempt to communicate directly with ordinary Bosnians. Leaflets explaining the rationale behind the snatch operations, as well as posters of the indicted war criminals (with captions translated into the local language), should be dropped throughout both Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation. In addition, senior NATO officers should appear on local television and radio to spread the message wider. Since the Bosnian Serb news media like to portray the British as their allies, the fact that the British Army carried out the snatch operations is critical. Some carefully chosen words can go a long way.
An even-handed approach
At the same time, the trial of Bosnian-Croat Tihomir Blaskic, which is currently under way in The Hague, should, if at all possible, be broadcast into every home in the country. This would show that the International War Crimes Tribunal is a serious and impartial institution.
As Bosnians tensely await further arrests, NATO must also show itself to be even-handed. Among the sealed indictments, there are surely Croats and Muslims as well. They too should be picked up.
That said, Radovan Karadzic is still key. His trial could be a crucial ingredient in promoting reconciliation between Bosnia's peoples, and until he is in custody, indicted war criminals will effectively remain in power in Republika Srpska.
However, another arrest - especially if no Croats or Muslims have been picked up in the meantime - may prove counterproductive. Perhaps Karadzic should be offered two weeks or a month of grace to go to The Hague on his own accord. Given his vanity and the genuine threat of a humiliating arrest, he may now feel it is in his best interest.
The boldness and the professionalism of the NATO soldiers who carried out the snatch operation have given the Dayton peace agreement a genuine chance of success. An effective public- information campaign could yield equal dividends and may even make future military operations unnecessary.
* Christopher Bennett is a political analyst for the International Crisis Group in Sarajevo and the author of "Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse" (New York University Press).