Milosevic was almost easy. But what about Yeltsin?

`Of course the big boys have nothing to worry about. They have the pernicious power of veto'
A FEW months ago I travelled to the headquarters of the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. I had gone to the Hague to interview Judge Louise Arbour, chief prosecutor of the Tribunal and the woman who was a key campaigner for the establishment of a permanent war-crimes court.

On a sunny autumn day in this bland Dutch city it was hard to summon up the imagery of war. Mass graves, stinking corpses, demolished buildings, trails of refugees... They belonged to another country entirely. The imposing concrete facade of the Tribunal building, the neatly dressed international police officers, the press room with its tidy pile of leaflets and handouts - these were the symbols of the civilised order. It was from this building not long ago that the Tribunal declared Slobodan Milosevic to be an indicted war criminal. There have been other names, too, less internationally known but no less notorious among the people they tormented.

When I spoke to her, Judge Arbour was nearing the end of her term in office, preparing to return to Canada where she'd been appointed to the Supreme Court. It was not hard to admire Louise Arbour. She was straight- talking and hardworking, a person of compassion devoted to the ideal of a just order in an unjust world. She also had to walk a tightrope, aware that high-profile indictments such as that of Milosevic left her open to charges of pro-Nato bias.

She robustly rejected any suggestion that her office was biased in favour of the West. It was down to the evidence and the law, she insisted. I believed her then, and I still do. For me, though, the question was less to do with whether Milosevic should have been indicted (of course he should) but about the larger issues of culpability and responsibility for war crimes. What about the big countries like the USA, China and Russia? Would we ever see their leaders or soldiers being indicted for crimes against humanity?

Ms Arbour insisted that a permanent War Crimes court would go after the big boys. The problem was that a country like the United States - so loud in its demands for the prosecution of Milosevic - refused to sign up to the treaty establishing the court. In the case of the Americans it was the My Lai factor: the fear that its troops might commit a Vietnam- style atrocity for which America could be called to account before an international court.

At the moment it is up to the UN Security Council to establish tribunals to investigate war crimes. So far they have targeted the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, two states where appalling crimes against humanity have been committed.

But Yugoslavia and Rwanda presented the world with relatively easy choices. Going after Milosevic and the monsters who masterminded the Rwandan genocide didn't really offend the interests of any major power. I found myself wondering what would happen the next time one of the big international players indulged in crimes against humanity. Would the new zeal for justice, post-Milosevic indictment, embrace the likes of Boris Yeltsin and his Russian generals?

In my heart of hearts, I already knew the answer. Of course the big boys have nothing to worry about. They have permanent seats on the Security Council and the pernicious instrument of veto that goes with that power. Aside from the veto there is a quiet understanding that none of the major powers will do anything that embarrasses the other. Just look at our reaction to Chechnya. There has not been a whisper about charging Yeltsin or his generals with war crimes. True, we had the light opera of Istanbul and Yeltsin's blustering exit from an international summit there this week. But Boris will not have been too worried by anything Bill Clinton said. The walkout-that-wasn't was intended for domestic consumption. Yeltsin will continue with his bloody war, unencumbered by fear of prosecution.

Just because it will never happen does not mean we should be blind to the case against Yeltsin and his generals. They have used jets, tanks, artillery and ground forces to launch a full-scale invasion of Chechnya. Their weapons have been used with little or no consideration for the lives of civilians. We are told that thousands may have died but we cannot find out the full scale of casualties because Yeltsin the democrat, the man who faced down the totalitarians in 1993, refuses to allow journalists to visit the area. What we can see are tens of thousands of terrified refugees driven out of their homeland by the advancing Russian army. The heavy bombing of cities and villages, the displacement of vast populations would give war-crimes investigators plenty of work in the months ahead.

Not that this is the first time Boris Yeltsin has unleashed the forces of inhumanity. His last Chechen war was another escapade rich in case- studies for the investigators. Nothing happened then. Nothing will happen now. The Chechen dead will be buried. The people will eventually creep back to their ruined villages and cities. The Russians may win the battle but they will lose the war, just as they have before.

The consequence of this war will be instability across the Caucasus and into Central Asia. Yeltsin will bequeath to his heirs a conflict every bit as bad as, if not worse than, the Afghanistan that Brezhnev left to his successors. The Chechens will not lie down under Russian domination. Sooner or later the guerrilla war will begin in earnest. And it is the conscript soldiers of Mr Yeltsin's army - half-starved, badly equipped - who will be the first to reap the whirlwind. But there will be a political price to pay too. Yeltsin may have disappeared from the scene by the time the reckoning comes; it is his generals and Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister, or his successors who will find themselves mired in this unwinnable conflict.

And we in the West will sit on our hands. We will not move against Mr Yeltsin. For all Louise Arbour's sincere belief about justice for all, there will be no such justice. Eventually we will draw our hands out from under our backsides and point our fingers at the wretched collection of third-rate, Third World despots to warn them of the prosecution they face for killing their own people. That is safe justice, it does not call for much in the way of courage. But we will have no such admonition for Boris Yeltsin. For he is our man after all, another of those desperate characters with whom we can do business. Or so we think.

Louise Arbour spoke eloquently of how justice can restore the moral equilibrium.When she indicted Milosevic she said she felt no joy - just the satisfaction of knowing that one more step had been taken in the creation of a more accountable world order. She is right about the moral purpose of justice, just as a permanent war-crimes court is an essential tool for the creation of long-term peace and stability.

More dangerous than tyranny, however, is the promise of justice unfulfilled. In Chechnya we know there is a case to answer but we are too scared to say sot. If we are not willing to confront the most powerful - Americans, Russians, Chinese - then justice ceases to have any meaning. We recognise this truth in our domestic courts. We should not be afraid to do so on the international stage.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent