I'm probably as excited as anyone about the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic which opened in the UN court in The Hague Feb. 12. It certainly promises courtroom drama! And of course, it would be satisfying, at some level, to see this wrongdoer held clearly accountable for his acts.
But before getting carried away with the prospects for the growing venture of international criminal justice that now has Mr. Milosevic in its grasp, consider for a few moments the contrast between his "case" and that of Afonso Dhlakama.
Afonso Dhlakama is the head of a political movement in Mozambique called Renamo, which between 1975 and 1992 maintained a bloody insurrection against the central government. An estimated 1 million Mozambicans lost their lives to that war, and many of these deaths were truly atrocious. Torture, mutilation, sex-slavery, forced relocations, forced starvation, and enslavement were just some of the means that Renamo used in its warmaking. Renamo was generously backed by South Africa's apartheid regime - and also got some help from the Reagan administration.
In 1992, Mozambique's exhausted central government finally sat down with Renamo, and the two sides concluded a peace agreement. Under the agreement, Renamo promised to become a peaceful political party, and won the right to participate in national elections. Both sides agreed to a blanket amnesty for all acts committed during the war.
So, Mr. Dhlakama got off scot-free. But he more or less kept his side of the bargain. Since 1992, Renamo has taken part in two rounds of national elections, and Dhlakama has played the role of (sometimes fairly recalcitrant) leader of the political opposition. Mozambique, a desperately poor country plagued by environmental distress, has largely moved on from the traumas of its civil war....
And what of Mr. Milosevic's country, meanwhile? Back in 1993, when the UN Security Council established the special court for former Yugoslavia, it spelled out the hope that the court could help deter the commission of further atrocities, and promote reconciliation throughout the region. Regrettably, it succeeded on neither count. The atrocities continued. And the adversarial nature of the proceedings in The Hague tended to exacerbate intergroup suspicions, rather than promoting intergroup healing. Relations among ethnic groups remain tense, suspicious, and fearful throughout most of former Yugoslavia.
So, which approach has brought about a better outcome for the millions of war-traumatized members of these two different regions: prosecutions, as pursued since 1993 regarding former Yugoslavia, or amnesty, as chosen in 1992 in Mozambique?
These are tough questions. They go against the grain of what we feel these high-level perpetrators "deserve." Doesn't someone like Dhlakama deserve to be punished just as much as Milosevic?
But, wisdom - unlike most headline writers - tells us that this whole issue is not just about highly placed individuals, however heinous their acts. It is also about seeking what's best for the broader communities concerned.
And at this level, there is a role that prosecutions can sometimes play - but it's much more limited than many folks in the human-rights movement think.
Consider the trials that the Allies held of two-dozen top Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, Germany, right after World War II, which many human-rights activists look back at with an awe approaching reverence. But back in 1945, the Allies never saw the Nuremberg court as providing any kind of a panacea for the many problems they faced in Germany. Rather, it was one small part of a broader political project that sought - at least as far as the Western allies were concerned - to rebuild Germany as a democratic, much more tolerant country. (And at the level of technical jurisprudence, the Nuremberg trials were marked by many deep flaws.)
So where, with respect to the still-troubled countries of former Yugoslavia, is the broader political project through which the international community holds out real hope of a better future to these countries' peoples? And how does Milosevic's trial fit into this project?
Without such a project, it doesn't matter how many reams of ground-breaking legal precedents the highly paid lawyers produce in The Hague. If there is no workable peace plan for Bosnia and Herzogovina, for Croatia, for Kosovo and the rest of Serbia, for Macedonia - all of those legal rulings will count for nothing.
In the end, law has to be about helping people find a way to live together. If it can't do that, let's look for solutions elsewhere.
Helena Cobban is a veteran journalist and author of five books on international issues.