Saddam's arrest should be the signal to bring other war criminals to book

We should be asking after the welfare of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the butchers of Bosnia, and Liberia's Charles Taylor

I happened to be standing among a group of genocide survivors when news of Saddam Hussein's arrest was broadcast on Radio Rwanda. To a man they cheered the news. It might have been a remote hillside in one of the most remote parts of Africa but Saddam's high crimes were well known there. I'd spent the morning listening to killers describe the massacres in which they'd participated and was, just then, listening to the survivors talk about the lack of courtroom justice for genocide victims. One boy who'd lost his entire family said he was smiling because on the other side of the world some Kurdish survivor of Saddam's gas attacks might have his day in court. In a world often composed of competing victim classes his was a moving affirmation of an idea of universal justice.

But this isn't a column about Rwanda or Iraq. It is about all the crimes of war and peace which humanity promised to fight and curtail in the aftermath of the Second World War. Back then a Jewish refugee from Europe, Raphael Lemkin, lobbied, harried and pushed the victorious nations towards accepting the idea of universal laws to protect vulnerable populations from the threat of extinction. The Genocide Convention enforced certain obligations on the international community, not least the responsibility to intervene to protect populations targeted for extermination "in whole or in part".

After Pol Pot, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia you might feel justified in saying that the words "never again" should be erased from our collective memory. But that would be an error. For all the slaughter and moral failure of the past half century we have been making progress.

The butchery in Bosnia and Rwanda shamed the international community, but it did spur a majority of the world's nations to support the establishment of a world court to try war crimes. The very fact that we talk in terms of a trial for Saddam Hussein is a posthumous endorsement of Raphael Lemkin's ideas. It is, though, worth asking in passing what would have happened had Saddam accepted the American offer of exile before the war. There will be Iraqis who will pose the question: why make such an offer if the man's crimes were as heinous as we knew? The answer, of course, lies in politics and definitions of the greater good. I will come back to this later.

With the capture of Saddam there have been many voices raised to express fears about so-called "victor's justice". Putting him on trial in Iraq, some argue, would render the judicial process vulnerable to a retributive rather than a rational process. I am not so sure about that. The key will be the composition of the judicial panel and the willingness to use the tried and tested war crimes legislation - from the Geneva Conventions, the Customary Law of War and the Genocide Convention - in assessing Saddam's culpability. The test for the Iraqis is to avoid the kind of "justice" for which Saddam's regime became notorious; they can do this only by making the process as open and, though it may gall some, fair to the defendant as possible.

While the Saddam trial will be a landmark moment in war crimes law, it should not be the only game in town. The most pressing danger to the war against war crimes comes from our inconsistency and inertia. While Saddam is busy defying American interrogators, there are several equally vicious warlords evading international justice. The fact that they did not threaten, or were not seen to threaten, the interests of a major state has meant they have occupied far fewer column inches in the newspapers and much less CIA time.

Yet they are men who challenge all of the values which Mr Bush espoused when he went to war in Iraq. These are killers who have attacked democratic values with the weapons of ethnic division and tribalism. They have raped, tortured and killed their own people; some have robbed and plundered their country's exchequers; others have exported their wars across international borders. In this week of optimism after Saddam's arrest, we should be asking after the welfare of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the butchers of Bosnia, and the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor.

Like Karadzic and Mladic, Charles Taylor has been indicted by the UN for war crimes. He has been charged with "bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international law in Sierra Leone". The wars which he sponsored cost some 200,000 lives and an unknown number of maimings and mental traumas.

Back in June when the indictment was handed down, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch proclaimed the importance of the moment. An African warlord was being made to face international justice, a signal that the continent had not been abandoned and that the pain of a Liberian, Guinean or Sierra Leonian villager mattered every bit as much as that of a city dweller in the West. "The indictment against Taylor sends a strong message that no one is above the law when it comes to accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of international law," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch.

But it turned out not to be such a strong message or step forward. In a peace deal which America helped to negotiate, Charles Taylor went into luxurious exile in Nigeria. He did what Saddam could have done before the American invasion. It didn't make him any less guilty but he was free and his victims were denied their moment of truth. I was in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, before the deal was signed and I witnessed the terrible suffering of the civilian population. The logic of the Taylor deal was to end the war by persuading him to leave. Had he thought he was going to be arrested and convicted Mr Taylor might never have gone. But how do we explain to the terrorised people of the region that a solemn indictment under international law was publicly ignored by the international community?

The case of the Bosnian duo is somewhat different. They are on the run and we are officially hunting them. I say "officially" because in practice they now seem to be able to roam freely, if secretly, around their former fiefdom. Both are among the most odious figures of the past half century, yet they are now probably drinking slivovica and basking in their good luck. I do wonder what they made of Saddam's arrest. The optimistic scenario is it made both them and Charles Taylor nervous, and that it will encourage those who are hunting them.

The worry is that these indicted war criminals will look at Saddam in custody and continue to believe it will never happen to them because nobody cares enough to hunt them down. Surely the people of Srebrenica and Freetown, and all the forgotten small towns and villages of the former Yugoslavia and West Africa, deserve better than this.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent