Sharks escape as The Hague tries a minnow

The case of The World v Dusan Tadic is likely to drag on for at least six months. It took the World two days last week to tire of the case, and its numbing litany of evil, and turn its attention elsewhere.

Mr Tadic, a Serbian small-town bully and, allegedly, mass murderer, is the first defendant in an international war crimes trial since the end of the Second World War. A former cafe owner who looks like a slimmer version of Rene from Allo, Allo, he made an unimpressive figure as he slumped nervously in his seat in the court in The Hague.

Whatever the extent of his guilt - the murder of at least 16 Muslims in 1992, according to the prosecutors - Mr Tadic was no more than a monstrous tadpole in a pool of sharks. No one is suggesting that he organised the genocidal mania - ethnic cleansing, torture, rape, mass execution - which swept Bosnia in the spring of 1992. The murderers-in-chief, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, lurk still in Serb-held parts of Bosnia, seemingly immune to any attempt by the international peace-enforcement armies to apprehend them.

The political impresario of ethnic cleansing, President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, has become virtually a trusted friend of the West. He is the man who ended our embarrassment in the Balkans by making the Dayton peace agreement possible; he is the man that we still need to make the agreement stick. Karadzic and Mladic have been indicted by the tribunal in The Hague but there seems little prospect of them being tried, except in absentia. Milosevic - the man who scientifically fomented the climate of terror and ethnic hatred in Bosnia in 1992 - has not, and will not, be indicted.

Why has the world's moral outrage descended on Dusan Tadic? In what sense can he - a civilian, who allegedly murdered his neighbours - be said to have been involved in "war" crimes?

The tribunal offers several arguments. Tadic fell into the hands of the international community when he was arrested in Germany in 1994. A considerable body of evidence, including 100 eye-witnesses, points to his guilt. Surely he had to be tried - should the world just turn a blind eye to the allegations?

Secondly, through the Tadic case, and others to follow, the tribunal will be able to build a "pyramid of evidence" which will reconstruct the scope and horror of the worst atrocities seen in Europe since 1945. By prosecuting the executioners, it will be able to make its case against the people who gave the orders.

The tribunal also claims an intrinsic virtue in assembling and dissecting the events in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, in a legalistic and formal way. Judge Richard Goldstone, the South African chief prosecutor, believes this will help the world to understand what happened and prevent it occurring again.

There is more. The prosecutors and judges are in the business of creating international law. Like a train laying its own tracks, the tribunal is making its own jurisprudence as it goes along. The Nuremberg and Japanese war crimes trials are regarded as a model of a kind, but inevitably tainted by the accusation that they were a trial of the defeated by the conquerors. The Hague tribunal, it is hoped, will create a surer moral and legal code on which to found future trials - and a precedent that such actions amount to a crime not just in one state, but against humanity.

All of this is admirable... But it is a huge, historic weight to heap on the shoulders of a 40-year-old cafe-owning, karate expert, whatever the final evidence of his guilt.

If the real perpetrators of the Bosnian genocide go free, what will The Hague have proved? If Dusan Tadic is jailed for life, but Karadzic and Mladic escape, will that prevent another Bosnia or Rwanda? Will it halt the gathering civil warfare in Burundi?

There is no point in creating a body of law against genocide unless we are prepared to enforce it. The deterrent effect of all laws is based on the likelihood of detection and the certainty of punishment. Jailing a few low-level individuals is just a balm for the world's conscience. In this case, we have an opportunity to go for the head of the snake: realpolitik, the need to preserve the Dayton peace, dictates that we will not.

The lesson will be the same as at Nuremberg: war crimes will only be punished if you lose the war. Even a score-draw like Bosnia is enough to keep Mladic, Karadzic and Milosevic safe.

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