Global law for global criminals


LONDON -- The world needs justice -- starting with Bosnia and Rwanda and going on to deal with Iraq and Libya. Laws should operate internationally. Genocide, torture, rape, murder and blowing up airliners in the sky are illegal in most countries; they should be illegal internationally.

Few nations formally oppose the extension of the laws of civilization into the foreign realm: That's why the overwhelming majority of nations have signed the Genocide, Torture and Air Hijacking Conventions. Support for war-crimes tribunals to deal with the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda is almost unanimous.

But action is another matter. The indicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and his general, Ratko Mladic, move freely and no one lifts a finger to arrest them. That's because re-election has been Bill Clinton's complete agenda, and he did not want to risk anything in the Balkans. So American terms for participation in the NATO operation in Bosnia required the other partners not to seek out war criminals and hand them over to the War Crimes Court in The Hague, as required by the American-brokered peace agreement negotiated in Dayton.

With Mr. Clinton safely returned to office, the credibility of the ex-Yugoslavia War Crimes Tribunal must be restored. If it cannot function in the bosom of Western civilization, what chance is there for its sister body in Arusha, Tanzania, now starting on the trials of alleged Rwandan war criminals?

Beyond that is the idea, under discussion since the Nuremberg and Tokyo war-crimes trials after World War II, of a permanent International Criminal Court, rather than these ad hoc ones. It would be a forum for justice, agreed upon by the world community, ready and able to act, in cases of genocide, torture, war crimes and international terrorism.

It shouldn't have taken so long. Blame Stalin and the Cold War. Blame America, which held up ratification of the Genocide Convention for 45 years. Blame the rest of the world for two generations of apathy. But thank Muammar el Kadafi, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and the Rwandans for rubbing our noses in injustice so deep that at last something is stirring.

One of the troubles with the United Nations is an insufficiency of judicial teeth. It can sit on its hands or it can call for a blockade or, as it did with Iraq, order a war. Between these extremes there's too big a void.

Ethnic wars don't simply happen because, as the press usually reports, of "deep-seated hatreds" and "ancient animosities." The waters must be actively stirred. As Human Rights Watch astutely observed last year, "The present-day outbursts of ethnic hatred are due more to government manipulation than ancient animosities."

Deterrent to killing

Very little can be done about ancient animosities. But killing between members of rival communities nearly always is orchestrated by a relatively small group. This is why a court, if properly functioning, can be a real deterrent.

At the outset of a conflict ringleaders can be warned through diplomatic channels of the consequences of their actions. If they persist, international warrants, with attendant publicity, can be issued subjecting them to arrest if they ever go abroad for either business or pleasure. Their assets stashed abroad could be made subject to seizure. Since many war criminals seem to have a penchant for traveling and high living, these sanctions could be quite effective.

Those who incite communal violence must be made to realize that from now on they are being watched. This won't stop all wars or neutralize every Hitler, Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. But it may give some of their followers pause, and it will be one more useful weapon in the armory of civilized nations.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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