Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

War Crimes Tribunal - Another Bosnia Sellout?

At UN, money and political support are running low

AS the fighting subsides, the war in Bosnia is starting to yield up its grim secrets. Barely a day goes by without another terrible discovery: mass graves, eyewitness accounts of rape, murder, and massacre.

After the rage comes the reckoning. If these crimes go unpunished, there will be no peace for Bosnia. Every new discovery will feed a desire for revenge.

About these ads

The best way to break this cycle is to strengthen the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, set up in The Hague to prosecute war criminals. President Clinton praised the tribunal recently, and drew a pointed reference to Nuremberg. But there is a gap between rhetoric and reality. Support for the tribunal is faltering at precisely the moment it is most needed.

When the tribunal was established in May 1993, some said it was a substitute for tough action to stop ethnic cleansing. Others said it would never lead to prosecutions because the Bosnian Serbs would refuse to cooperate.

Thus far the skeptics have been proven wrong. The Bosnian Serbs have indeed stayed aloof, but this has not stopped the tribunal from issuing warrants for the arrest of 43 individuals. They include a Bosnian Serb named Dusan Tadic, who is being held by the United Nations and is expected to come to trial later this year. Mr. Tadic was a guard in the Serb detention center of Omarska in northwest Bosnia early in the war. He reportedly engaged in grisly acts of torture.

The chief prosecutor at the tribunal, former South African judge Richard Goldstone, has cast his net wide. In addition to individual guards like Tadic, he has issued indictments against the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

There is something reassuring about the way Justice Goldstone has set his sights on those who may well hold the key to a settlement. It is a long time since the UN put justice before expediency in Bosnia. But the question is whether governments will let Goldstone continue. At a time when the need for accountability is clearer than ever, the tribunal faces several distinct threats.

Lukewarm UN backing

The first comes from the UN Security Council, which set up the tribunal in 1993 under its peace-enforcement mandate, without consulting the General Assembly. In spite of that early (and some would say high-handed) zeal, none of the five permanent members on the council has adopted legislation formally accepting the jurisdiction of the tribunal.

About these ads

The Clinton administration has proposed a draft that is now before the Senate, but this has been folded into two bills authorizing funding for the departments of State and Defense which are both at risk in the current budgetary impasse. The British government promised an administrative order months ago, but nothing has so far appeared. France - one of the tribunal's first sponsors - is also backtracking, apparently worried about creating a precedent that might be used against Rwandan war criminals who have taken refuge in France. Russia has always viewed the tribunal as hostile to its Serb friends. China is opposed to anything that would expand the Security Council's jurisdiction over human rights.

What kind of signal does it send to the Bosnian Serbs, who are being asked to surrender their leaders for trial, if the tribunal's own sponsors are so reluctant to formally accept the prosecutor's authority?

It is also alarming that none of the five permanent members of the Security Council has agreed to take persons convicted by the tribunal. This is another important test of international commitment. The Dutch government is worried about being left with the task of jailing violent war criminals. Dutch officials do not discount the possibility of terrorist attacks to free convicts or disrupt trials.

Tribunal's money problems

The second major threat against the tribunal is financial. After two years of being consistently underfunded, the tribunal finally received $28.4 million for this year. But it will need to go back to the UN shortly with a new budget request for 1996-97.

There is no guarantee of success. Prosecutions are proving to be expensive and time-consuming, and Goldstone still needs over 60 new posts. But several governments are warning that with the two Bosnian Serb leaders now indicted, the tribunal has achieved its main aim and should expect less, rather than more, money.

The third serious threat to the tribunal comes, ironically, from peace. The Security Council could abolish the tribunal if it concludes that indictments threaten a peace agreement. It could declare an amnesty for past crimes. Very likely, it will lift economic sanctions against Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs.

None of this is warranted. Without sanctions, the UN has no way of forcing a government to surrender suspected war criminals, and no government deserves the pressure more than Serbia. Serbia has reneged on a promise to let the prosecutor open an office in Belgrade. If anything, the screws should be tightened on Belgrade.

As President Clinton has rightly said, there will be no peace in the Balkans without justice. Governments must now translate this into concrete actions. They must hold the line on sanctions, reaffirm the tribunal's authority, and provide adequate funding for prosecutions. Anything else would amount to an amnesty for the killers and yet another betrayal of Bosnia.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.