Leading Article: At least we tried to achieve justice

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It was awkward news for the Government in 1986 when the Simon Wiesenthal Centre delivered a list of alleged war criminals said to be living in Britain. Suddenly there was a real problem of what to do next. Ministers set up a commission to investi gate, probably expecting that the issue would disappear. Then they were told that the men not only existed, but that there was strong evidence against them.

The subjects of the inquiry had come here unquestioned after the war, amid a tide of innocent refugees displaced by advancing Soviet troops. They had allegedly kept quiet about their war records, taken British passports and lived the lives of model citizens. These individuals were not Nazis, not Germans, but eastern Europeans who had been citizens of countries invaded by the Germans. They had allegedly killed women, children and babies after rounding them up on behalf of the Germans, who had had to provide precious little encouragement.

By 1986, however, there was a strong case for turning a blind eye to the list. After all, many evils are done in wars and people die in questionable circumstances. Many people felt that if these men were tried, their cases would lead to endless demands for further trials.

And how on earth could they be tried fairly after all these years? The debate on how to proceed dragged on for five years.

By 1991 the House of Commons had passed a law to make it possible to try these men in Britain for murder. Since then, a great deal of time and money has been spent investigating 300 suspects.

In March the police will wind down their investigations. Perhaps five or six old men will find themselves in the dock at the Old Bailey. Many, if not all of them, will most likely be acquitted. And that will probably close the book on war criminals in Britain.

"What a waste of money," critics will say. "We told you not to bother. Where has all this got us?" And £5m does seem to be a lot of money to trace a few old men who, by an accident of longevity, have survived to face equally aged witnesses.

To dwell on figures, however, is to miss the value of the quest against war criminals. Even if none is convicted, at least we will have tried to achieve justice.

Future generations will recognise our efforts. If we had done nothing about reports that war criminals were harboured in Britain, the country would have been shamed.

And £5m is really rather a small price to pay to avoid leaving a moral stain on the nation.