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Time Now to Arrest the War Criminals,
But Not All of Them



VIENNA, Austria--Perhaps the day will dawn when an American president gets his lines wrong and says, "We have no quarrel with the government of x, only with the people."

Of course, a big part of the trouble with ex-Yugoslavia is its unscrupulous leadership. But at least an equal part is due to the ethnic immaturity of its people. Ethnic conflict does not, it seems, require great difference or great leaders; small will do in both cases.

The conflict began with a clash between Serbia and Croatia, nations with only the smallest difference in geneology, with practically a common language and with much intermarriage. Nevertheless, guilty as the rank and file citizens of ex-Yugoslavia are, without the leaders they have the wars would never have been so well organized or so brutally focussed, nor of such genocidal proportions. Mass killings on this scale, whether it be in ex-Yugoslavia or Rwanda or, on a much much smaller scale, in northern Ireland, are always orchestrated by a relatively small group.

This is why although the war will never end until the peoples of this region are educated, prosperous and mature enough to be honest about their own culpability, the process of atonement will not properly begin until many of its leaders are arrested or die off. Since dying off is a slow business, particularly in this corner of the world where longevity is widely practiced, especially by those who are cocooned from the normal misfortunes of life, arrest is the only option.

The NATO peacekeepers have done one part of the job they set out to do: stabilize the truce for long enough to allow the peoples of ex- Yugoslavia, in particularly Bosnia, time to begin to re-think. But they have not done the other part, the removal of those leaders who have played upon their peoples' passions and who still remain an important loci of political power. The real re-thinking will not get under way until some of them, in particular the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and his general, Retko Mladic, are in the court-room of the international war-crimes tribunal in the Hague.

This was part of the grand bargain of the Dayton peace agreement. It is, apparently, after a period of uncertainty and ambiguity, what the most senior figures in the U.S. foreign policy apparatus are pushing for. The reticence is in the intelligence services and in the military, who for understandable reasons fear that such arrests will lead to a firefight and a firefight might re-ignite again the bonfire of ethnic warfare.

The answer to this conundrum lies in the timing. Done too fast or too soon after Dayton the arrests might well have been counterproductive. But Mr. Clinton should take a leaf out of his predecessor's book. Mr. George Bush when dealing with the Panamanian strong man and drug dealer, General Manuel Antonio Noriega, had impeccable timing. He wasn't impressed by the bravado talk of the Noriega crowd who said their man would take to the hills if the Americans invaded and organize a guerrilla force to blow a hole in the Gadun dam which would drain the canal. Bush waited the man out and then struck. Noriega panicked, abandoned his troops and fled to the Vatican embassy and in due course was shipped off to an American jail.

The strongest and boldest nerve can crack if the pressure is severe enough. Timing is everything. Clinton if he prepares and plans well should be able to do the same.

Yet even now there is room for sublety. Those who count the number of heads arraigned in the dock of the war-crimes tribunal miss part of the point. While convictions are necessary to give the court credibility, the court also, just by being in existence, serves as a deterrent, even if the numbers of cases it hears are limited. It is a Sword of Damocles hanging there and none of the alleged war criminals in ex- Yugoslavia know when it will be their turn.

It may be that Karadzic and Mladic need to be arrested fairly soon, since clearly they are still actively obstructing the cause of peace. But Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia's Franco Tudjman are arguably best left alone, at least for the time being. After all the Hague tribunal is not Nuremberg. This is not a victors' court. It is a mediators'. And finding a balance is what mediation is all about.

In fact, there is a degree of the rule of law in Serbia and Croatia; and there are elections. Indeed, in the recent Serbian election Milosovic's candidate (he himself was ineligible to run) came within a whisker of defeat and now has been forced into a re-run. Tragically, the electorate seems intent on voting for an even more extreme nationalist. This delicate moment is not the time to undermine Milosovic. It is the people we have to worry about most.


October 22, 1997, VIENNA

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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