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World needs war-crimes tribunal - but watch out.

Two cheers for the United Nations decision, Feb. 22, to establish a war crimes tribunal to deal with the former Yugoslavia. It comes, according to most reports, at least 20,000 rapes too late, and thousands of mutilations and murders too late. Still, it could be a step toward stopping the post-cold War world from a headlong descent into barbarism.

The three main warring factions -- Croats, Muslims and Serbs -- have all been accused of atrocities, and there seems plenty of evidence, if only there is the will, to nail many of the perpetrators. While not all Serbs are guilty, obviously, the Serb savagery has nevertheless been so overwhelming as to make those perpetrators an abomination around the world for ages to come. Crimes have consequences.

The fact that all factions are refighting old wars, including the Hitler war, should have been a reminder and warning to everyone that the hate that goes around comes around. Hate is blind, however, as is rampant nationalism, and this is why the U.N. intervention is irreplaceable.

There are convoluted historical and political reasons why it took almost half a century after Nuremburg to take this step again. We may be, in other words, at a pivotal moment. The will to continue the journey that has been so tentatively begun is vital. The tribunal should not be allowed to melt into a public-relations exercise, should not be bartered as a bargaining chip in the search for peace.

Nations, preoccupied with their own problems, prefer, in cases like this, to arrange a quick fix and put the whole nasty mess behind them. But history shows how the Pol Pots and Radovan Karadzics keep popping up. And in an ever-turbulent world, few nations can be totally sure it won't be their turn next time. Who would have thought, 10 years ago, or even three, that this would be happening in Yugoslavia? Who would have thought great chunks of the monumental Soviet Union would be on the edge of similar slaughter?

Despite its temporary fiscal problems, the United States is now so uniquely strong that it can make or break not only the war crimes tribunal but the United Nations itself. The tribunal will have teeth if the United States gives it teeth.

The temptation could be great to bend to expediency in Bosnia. Or to put short-term American self-interest ahead of lasting justice and peace in that sorry region. While we rail against the onus of being the world's police force, we seem to relish being able to make the moral, legal and political decisions that keep the rest of the world in its place and ourselves in the driver's seat.

In this new scenario, we would have to submit all, ourselves included, to the scrutiny of a really independent tribunal. There have been recent cases -- for example, from Iraq to El Salvador, from Nicaragua to Panama -- when an objective tribunal might have considered us as guilty as the next warlord.

On the other hand, it is not in our self-interest that the world descend into barbarism. And we can't stop it by continuing to play the Lone Ranger on the world political scene. Bring on the judges.
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Title Annotation:Yugoslavian civil war
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 5, 1993
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