The world has a warning for cruel strongmen everywhere: In the year 2001, the long arm of international law is more likely than ever before to snag you and haul you before a court of justice.
It's true that some of the globe's most thuggish leaders and ex-leaders remain at large, even at ease. Uganda's notorius Idi Amin today lives quietly in Saudi Arabia. Haiti's rapacious "Baby Doc," Jean-Claude Duvalier, was last seen in exile in France.
But the transfer of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to a war crimes court in The Hague may be just the latest evidence that an international effort to combat the darkest crimes of dictatorial regimes is having some effect, say experts.
Possible reasons for this trend include a developing sense of "universal jurisdiction" in some national courts, and international shock at the scale of 1990s atrocities in East Africa and the Balkans.
"We are seeing, for the first time since the end of the cold war and the twin genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, an international movement ... to end impunity for the worst abuses," says Reed Brody, director of advocacy at Human Rights Watch in New York.
The beginning of this movement might date to 1998, when Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, was arrested in Britain on charges brought by a Spanish judge investigating the disappearance of Spanish citizens in Chile during Mr. Pinochet's reign.
Another former head of state - the ex-dictator of Chad, Hissene Habre - is currently under arrest in Senegal on torture charges, and faces possible extradition to Belgium for trial.
Mexico has already agreed to extradite to Spain a former member of the Argentine military to answer a torture indictment. Venezuela has handed the fugitive former head of Peruvian intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos, back to the law enforcement agencies of his homeland. Last month, a Belgian jury convicted four Rwandan nuns of aiding and abetting the mass murders in their country in 1994.
But it is the United Nations-backed war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the Balkans that are arguably the most important current examples of the expansion of multinational criminal justice. And of this pair, it is the court for the former Yugoslavia that has recently experienced an unprecedented burst of activity.
Next stop: Croatia
The snap extradition of former President Slobodan Milosevic has given the tribunal in The Hague its long-sought confrontation with the man many believe was the main cause of the series of bitter Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Yugoslavian officials admit that $1.2 billion in international aid expedited the extradition of Mr. Milosevic. It's not clear yet if similar offers of financial aid from Western nations will be dangled to encourage other suspected war criminals in Bosnia and Croatia to be handed over.
But Carla Del Ponte, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, announced Friday that two indictments and arrest warrants for unnamed persons had been delivered to Croatia. They mark the tribunal's first move against high-ranking Croatian figures - believed to be two generals.
In Croatia, the prime minister's decision to support the arrests of the suspects has plunged Zagreb's reformist government into crisis. Four ministers resigned Saturday. "The government has collapsed!" blared yesterday's front page of Jutarnji List, a leading Croatian daily. A confidence vote in parliament is expected this week.
And the tribunal appeared to be closing in on perhaps its most-wanted indictees still at large - former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, and his military commander, Ratko Mladic.
This duo led Bosnian Serb forces during their notorious "ethnic cleansing" drives against Bosnian Muslims and Croats. With Milosevic in the dock, the Hague tribunal has forcefully renewed calls for the Serb portion of Bosnia, the Republika Srpska, to turn over Messrs. Karadzic and Mladic.
"I assume that the two gentlemen Mladic and Karadzic are not sleeping any more comfortably - and probably less comfortably," said US Secretary of State Colin Powell last Thursday.
Experts note that Karadzic and Mladic are both important suspects and important potential witnesses for the ad hoc judicial effort to hold Balkan war criminals to account.
Tough cases to prove
Experience has shown that war-crimes cases, particularly against high-ranking suspects, are more difficult to put together than might seem the case at first glance. The situation is no different in the former Yugoslavia. Prosecutors are unlikely to find a paper trail directly linking Slobodan Milosevic with any atrocities carried out by those under his command. Karadzic and Mladic, on the other hand, were middlemen whose testimony could tie Milosevic's orders and mass graves together.
"From the point of view of the tribunal, it is important for them to get an intermediary if they are going to convict Milosevic beyond a reasonable doubt," says Gary Dempsey, a Balkans specialist at the Cato Institute in Washington.
From the point of view of the accused, it is their misfortune to have fought a brutal war at a moment in history when "an unprecedented movement has emerged to submit international politics to judicial procedures," as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in the July/August issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Kissinger and other critics see some dangers in this movement. The notion of "universal jurisdiction", for instance, essentially holds that some crimes transgress borders. Thus Belgian justice tried Rwandans for actions in Africa, not Europe. Yet it is possible to take this notion too far, according to Kissinger, substituting the tyranny of judges for that of governments.
Belgian authorities have recently been embarrassed, for instance, by one judge's preliminary investigation into alleged atrocities carried out in Lebanon in 1982 under the forbearance Ariel Sharon, who was then defense minister and is now prime minister of Israel.
The move has sparked some calls for changes in Belgian law, which currently gives national courts jurisdiction over any violation of the Geneva Convention.
Kissinger himself is the subject of a new book accusing him of approving war crimes and assassinations while in office. And last week, it was reported that the Chilean judge who indicted Pinochet wants to question Kissinger about the assassination of an American filmmaker in Chile. Associated Press reports that Judge Juan Guzman has prepared more than 50 questions to be posed to Kissinger about the killing of Charles Horman shortly after the 1973 coup led by Pinochet.
Mr. Horman's case was the subject of the film "Missing," starring Sissy Spacek and the late Jack Lemmon.
The US, for its part, has been reluctant to ratify its participation in a proposed International Criminal Court in part due to worries that US troops in foreign nations could be hauled before its bar on possibly trumped-up charges.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor