WORLD

Investigating evil

The arrests of suspected war criminals mar the fragile peace process

BRUCE WALLACE February 19 1996
WORLD

Investigating evil

The arrests of suspected war criminals mar the fragile peace process

BRUCE WALLACE February 19 1996

Investigating evil

The arrests of suspected war criminals mar the fragile peace process

WORLD

BOSNIA

The common sense of mankind demands that the law shall not stop with the punishment of petty crimes by little people. It must also reach men who possess great power and make deliberate and concerted use of it to set in motion great evil.

—Robert Jackson, chief American prosecutor opening the 1945 Nuremberg trial of Nazi war criminals

There was much evidence of great evil for those prosecutors, following in Robert Jackson’s footsteps, who found themselves picking their way through the death-pitted lands of the former Yugoslavia last week. “This is not only a concentration camp but a death camp as well,” said U.S. state department representative John Shattuck as he gave reporters a tour of the infamous Bosnian Serb-run Omarska prison camp in northern Bosnia. “Many of the people who died, died not from bullet wounds but from severe and horrible torture that occurred in these places.”

Bosnia has no shortage of places of horror.

International war-crimes investigators have identified dozens of sites, from a place near Vukovar where Serbs allegedly slaughtered 260 Croatian hospital patients in 1991, to central Bosnian towns where Croatian leaders are reported to have committed atrocities against Muslims in 1993. Ploddingly but progressively, investigators are building their cases—a modest 12 indictments brought against 52 individuals so far. But they have kept to Jackson’s noble exhortation to go after the planners and architects of the crimes, not just the foot soldiers. Among those indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal based at The Hague are some of Bosnia’s top political and military figures, notably Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, and Bosnian Croats Dario Kordic and Gen. Tihofil Blaskic.

But the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of peace sometimes collide. Last week, the Bosnian government arrested five Bosnian Serb soldiers after they made a wrong turn into government-held territory near Sarajevo. Among them were Gen. Djordje Djukic and Col. Aleksa Krsmanovic, whom Bosnian leaders blame for mass killings near the capital. The arrests brought to at least eight the number of Bosnian Serb soldiers being detained by the government and, although it later released four of them, they did not include the two officers. Neither man has been indicted by the war-crimes tribunal, and Bosnian Serb officials immediately denounced the arrests.

Mladic himself broke a two-month public silence to announce “suspended” relations with IFOR, the NATO-led force that is implementing the peace agreement signed between all of Bosnia’s warring factions last December. Suddenly, after weeks of steady progress towards normalcy, the fragility of the uneasy peace was again exposed.

War-crimes investigators at The Hague immediately defended the arrests, noting that the tribunal’s charter allows suspects to be held temporarily until investigators decide whether to lay charges. The uncomfortable fact remains that the tribunal has only one suspect in custody—Dusan Tadic, a guard from the Omarska camp—and neither the Serbian nor Croatian authorities has shown much willingness to turn suspected criminals over to the international body. NATO commanders, wary of so-called “mission creep,” have been reluctant to get involved in the hunt. “That would be a judgment call,” said Canadian Brig.-Gen. Bruce Jeffries when asked last month whether soldiers under his command in northwestern Bosnia would arrest any suspected war criminals. ‘We don’t have pictures of these guys, so there’s no way to identify them.”

Despite IFOR’s reluctance and amid fears that guilty parties might be trying to cover up evidence of their crimes, the Clinton administration reiterated its backing for the tribunal. Washington instructed NATO to provide security for investigators seeking access to suspected mass graves. But the tribunal’s cases will rely heavily on non-physical evidence as well, especially electronically intercepted recordings of orders issued by commanders to their men in the field. The Americans have turned some of that surreptitiously gathered evidence over to the tribunal, and electronic taps are sure to become the 1990s equivalent of the Nazis’ meticulous record-keeping of their own crimes. It was American satellite imagery, for example, that drew attention to the disturbed earth on a football field near Srebrenica that indicated the bulldozing of mass graves.

But deputy prosecutor Graham Blewitt also argues that Balkan war criminals “damned themselves with their own statements.” For example, he says, “Karadzic vowed that if the 1992 Bosnian referendum on independence went ahead, ‘there would be no Muslim left alive.’ ” That self-indictment rekindles memories of such exhibits as the Nazis’ lavishly illustrated commemorative book on the smashing of the Warsaw Ghetto that was turned in as evidence at Nuremberg. That trial, wrote Rebecca West, who covered the proceeding for London newspapers, “will warn all future warmongers that the law can at least pursue them into peace and thus give humanity a new defence against them.” It may be awkward for the peace process, but Bosnia’s recent history shows it is a lesson that needs reinforcing.

BRUCE WALLACE in London