UNITED NATIONS -- The Security Council, launching the first international judgment of war crimes since the aftermath of World War II, voted unanimously yesterday to establish a tribunal to prosecute atrocities committed in the Balkans.
Spurred by mounting evidence of mass killing, forced deportations, concentration camps and mass rapes, the council said reports of widespread violation of international law threatened international security.
"There is an echo in this chamber today; the Nuremberg principles have been reaffirmed," U.S. envoy Madeleine Albright said in voting for the resolution. She pledged that the United States would "exert every effort to ensure that individuals involved in these outrageous, heinous crimes are identified and held accountable for their actions."
As a practical matter, diplomats here and U.S. officials hold little expectation that high-level war criminals will be apprehended and punished for crimes already documented in the ethnic warfare that has followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
But they agreed that creation of a tribunal would likely act as a deterrent against further atrocities.
The vote, initiated by France and Italy, came as the Clinton administration sought international support for a plan to air-drop humanitarian relief supplies as early as this week to areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav republic where the worst crimes have been reported in fighting during the past 10 months.
Mr. Clinton plans to meet today with Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to discuss the airdrop plan. Mr. Boutros-Ghali said yesterday he could support the idea provided it was carried out under U.N. supervision. U.S. officials have assured the United Nations that the airdrops are not intended to supplant U.N. truck convoys, which have begun to reach besieged areas of eastern Bosnia.
The two men are also expected to discuss the transfer of command in Somalia from the United States to the United Nations. The United States has voiced impatience over U.N. slowness in assuming military control of relief distribution and suppressing warlord violence.
The decision to establish a war-crimes tribunal comes a half-century after the victorious World War II powers conducted trials at Nuremberg, Germany, to prosecute and punish figures responsible for Nazi genocide. Separate trials were conducted in Tokyo of Japanese accused of war crimes.
In confining the planned tribunal to judging crimes committed in the former federation of Yugoslavia, the council implicitly recognized the fear among some U.N. member states about a permanent mechanism that could hold any of them to account during warfare.
Although there was talk during the Persian Gulf war of setting up a tribunal for Iraq's brutality in Kuwait and its use of "human shields" to deter attack, that effort never got off the ground.
It took the better part of a year of mounting evidence of forced deportations, followed by reports of detention camps and then mass rapes, for the council to act. The atrocities have been attributed mostly, though not solely, to Serbian forces.
A Commission of Experts previously set up to look into war-crimes charges has already received several thousands of pages of documentation and videotape evidence. It also has concluded that a mass execution occurred near Vukovar, Croatia, probably of patients and staff at Vukovar Hospital.
France led the way in producing yesterday's resolution.
The resolution gives the secretary-general 60 days to "report on all aspects of this matter" and present specific proposals. Suggestions have already been made by France and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe; the United States is expected to weigh in with a proposal.
Another resolution will be required for formal creation of the tribunal.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali will have to tread new ground in international law in weighing how individual war-crimes suspects are investigated and how they should formally be accused, apprehended and tried.
One issue he will confront is whether defendants must be present, as the United States wants, or can be tried in absentia.
Another is whether to create an adversarial proceeding rooted in U.S. and English common law or to give more power to judges to investigate and question witnesses.
How major suspects would be apprehended remains an open question. Some relatively low-level military personnel who have been accused are now being held by Muslims, Croats or Serbs as prisoners of war and presumably could be turned over by their captors.
But key military and political officials remain safe in territories they control. Among those who the United States has said must answer for war crimes committed by those under their authority are Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and the leader of Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic.