A First Step Toward a War-Crimes Tribunal


London -- The first international war-crimes investigation since the post-World War II Nuremberg and Tokyo began last Friday. A Bosnian Serb, Duscan Tadic, arrested in Germany, is being accused of killing, raping, beating and torturing Croats and Muslims during "ethnic cleansing" in northwestern Bosnia.

Mr. Tadic isn't one of the big fish. It is unlikely that a big fish would make the mistake of traveling abroad to where he might be arrested. Big fish, moreover, are likely to bargain their signatures for an amnesty if a peace agreement should ever come. Nevertheless, a considerable watershed has been crossed.

From now on, if you decide to take your country or your faction to war, the United Nations Security Council may decide to put you jTC and your henchmen under the writ of an international war-crimes tribunal. It has begun to do it with ex-Yugoslavia. It has announced it's going to do it with Rwanda, and it may well do it with Iraq. An amazing world-wide consensus has emerged.

Judge Richard Goldstone is the tribunal's chief prosecutor. He made his reputation as the head of the Commission on Political Violence that investigated human-rights abuses by the security forces in South Africa.

Armed with 24 vacant cells handed to him by the Dutch police and a team of detectives from Scotland Yard, he hopes to shape a permanent court on war crimes. He says: "There's only one way to stop criminal conduct in any country. That's not having sentences, not even the death sentence. If would-be criminals think they're going to be caught and punished, they're going to think twice. It's no different in the international sphere. If people think that, as a result of atrocities they may order, there's a good prospect of getting hauled before an international criminal tribunal, that -- if anything -- is likely to make them think twice."

Doubtless, it will take many years of operation of this kind of tribunal before its existence has such a deterrent effect. But if the first trials do take place as planned, next February or March, the publicity they will attract will announce that the world will hold the war criminal accountable.

Few people are aware of the progress that has been made in the development of international law over the last 50 years. There are now 67 international human-rights instruments, ranging from the outlawing of slavery and forced labor to the criminalization of torture and genocide.

The World Court, based in The Hague, furnishes an active jurisdictional body for 400 international treaties. From its founding in 1946 until the end of 1992, the court delivered judgments in 41 disputes. They ranged from the question of rights over the continental shelf affecting Tunisia and Libya, to a frontier dispute between Burkina Faso and Mali to Nicaragua's action against the U.S. for mining the waters of its main port.

Although the number of cases is relatively small, the court's influence is far greater. A judgment can fix precedents and shape the future interpretation of principles and treaties in the whole field of international law.

So great, in fact, is the implicit power of the court that a decision by one nation to refer a case to it can greatly exercise the mind of any other government that might be affected by the decision. For example, in 1974, Australia and New Zealand asked the court to rule on the extremely sensitive matter of responsibility for trans-boundary radioactive pollution, citing France as the government responsible. Before the case could be heard, the president of France publicly declared his government would cease atmospheric nuclear testing.

For years, many victims of human-rights abuses have asked why their cases cannot be dealt with similarly, and why human-rights cases are always fated to be handled by essentially political bodies in which national interest often conflicts with the pursuit of justice.

Now with Judge Goldstone's tribunal we have the beginning of an answer.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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