Punishing War Criminals

The American jury that last week awarded a group of Bosnian women $745 million in damages made an indisputable point. The systematic torture and rape carried out by forces under the command of Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the target of the lawsuit, demand punishment - even if that punishment, for now, is more symbolic than actual.

Mr. Karadzic is not likely to pay a cent any time soon, since he is far out of reach of the federal court in New York that heard the case. He presented no defense.

But the human rights groups that have promoted such cases aren't deterred by those details. Their goal is to highlight the injustice and give victims an opportunity to air what they experienced.

The hope, presumably, is that a public examination of such cases will help prevent future abuses.

US law accommodates these cases by means of a 1789 law that lets foreigners bring civil suits in US courts for injuries caused by the violation of international law. Originally, this had more to do with acts of piracy than war crimes. In 1992, Congress passed a law that strengthened this right to sue.

Since rights groups first used this legal tactic in 1980, numerous suits have been brought, targeting torturers and despots in Paraguay, Guatemala, Argentina, Haiti, the Philippines, and other places. Jury awards have typically been big, though so far none have been collected.

Critics have argued that these cases distort American justice, stretching its jurisdiction beyond reasonable limits and inviting others to likewise pursue what they view as US injustices. The point of such cases, they accurately point out, is more political than legal. Tangible redress of grievances is not available.

The best way to dispense justice to those, like Karadzic, indicted for war crimes is through international tribunals created for that purpose. And this approach shouldn't be abandoned despite practical problems in bringing the accused to the bar.

The move toward such tribunals has momentum today, with courts established for atrocities in former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, and plans under way at the United Nations for a third tribunal to deal with crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone's brutal civil war.

At best, the verdict voiced in New York is one more affirmation that those wanted for such crimes will not go scot free.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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