LEADING ARTICLE : Justice in Bosnia

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The Independent Online
It is time the international peace implementation force in Bosnia, I-For, started taking more seriously the role it could play in helping to uncover war crimes and bring the perpetrators to account. War crimes trials are often unsatisfactory. For many victims of war and relatives of those who died in atrocities the trials provide neither justice nor retribution. The priority in Bosnia must be to maintain the peace. Yet the Dayton accords, which have brought a fragile peace to Bosnia, make it clear the parties must co-operate with the International War Crimes Tribunal. I-For must play its part in easing the work of the tribunal and ensuring it gets the co-operation it needs.

Evidence of war crimes committed on a horrific scale is emerging all the time. A mass grave north of Mrkonjic Grad, believed to hold more than 200 bodies, is being excavated by investigators at the moment. Other sites, in eastern Bosnia, may have been interfered with.

It is easy to criticise the Nato-led implementation force for not doing enough to protect the sites and to bring the culprits to justice. The military commanders have said all along that that is not their main job. In an imperfect world, they are probably right. When peace negotiations were under way last year, peace was the overriding priority The investigation of war crimes took second place - in case it discouraged the parties from signing.

Once peace was agreed, I-For took time to move into position, and when it did its first responsibility was to keep the former warring factions apart. Then there were large areas of land to transfer. I-For was - and still is - stretched to fulfil its main task, and will remain so until all the heavy weapons are destroyed or placed in storage. That is due to happen by 18 April.

In those circumstances, I-For was right to be wary of being sucked into guarding and digging up suspected war crimes sites, or chasing after indicted war criminals. But now peace is taking hold, I-For can do more.

Photographs of wanted war criminals have been circulated to I-For roadblocks, and any wanted war-criminal who is unwise enough to encounter one risks being detained. I-For is obliged to assist the tribunal in cases involving indicted war crimes suspects, as in the case of two Bosnian-Serb officers arrested by Bosnian government authorities in February and flown to the Hague on a Nato aircraft.

Most importantly, I-For must realise that the credibility of the international community is again on the line. It failed to prevent the civil war, and the massacre of the people of Srebrenica even with UN troops on the scene. The rest of the world cannot drag its heels over the war crimes investigations, because if it does, it will open the way quite clearly for war crimes to be committed in other wars without fear of retribution.

And it should not limit itself to small fry who stumble into I-For checkpoints. The first priority was peace. Now it must be to get get the ring leaders, whose whereabouts cannot be difficult to divine. Last Sunday, Dr Karadzic appeared at a public ceremony in Pale, handing out medals. As long as he remains at liberty, he makes a mockery of the rest of the world. Now that Karadzic and Mladic are increasingly isolated, it is time to remove them from political life, which would also help to cement peace. Peace and justice are no longer in tension in the way they once might have been. I-For should act.