Leading Article: Law without enforcement

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The Independent Online
THE WAR in Bosnia has been more sickening than most. Vicious atrocities have been committed against combatants and non-combatants alike, including women and children, not only in the heat of battle but systematically, in cold blood, and in the pursuit of planned policies of intimidation, retribution and territorial conquest. The odious practice of 'ethnic cleansing', openly admitted and even defended by its perpetrators, has added a new term to the vocabulary of crime. International outrage seems merely to bounce off the stubborn self-righteousness of the Serbs and the vengeful anger of the others.

Unable to stop the war, international opinion has been casting around for ways of mitigating its horrors. This week the United States delivered a report to the United Nations on 'violations of humanitarian law and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions in former Yugoslavia'. The report is intended as a first step towards prosecuting the perpetrators for war crimes. It cites violations by all parties to the conflict but attributes the largest share of responsibility to the Serbs in Belgrade and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Two days earlier, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) reacted to a report by its mission to former Yugoslavia, which found 'the most severe violations of human rights and disregard for international humanitarian law'. The CSCE demands the release of prisoners, the return of property and the restoration of frontiers. Like the United States, it emphasises the need to establish 'personal accountability' for crimes committed during the war.

Does all this amount to more than hand- wringing as a substitute for action? Clearly the intention is to persuade the perpetrators of atrocities that the long hand of international justice will eventually reach them, so they had better stop now. Historical parallels are not encouraging, however. The Nazis received similar warnings in 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt drew attention to the atrocities they were committing and Winston Churchill made punishment for war crimes a major aim of the war. Many similar pronouncements followed. In 1943 the Allies even set up a War Crimes Commission. There was no observable effect on Nazi behaviour. Eventually some Nazis were brought to justice, but only because Germany was occupied by the victors. More recently, talk of bringing Saddam Hussein to justice has come to nothing because no one has been able to take him into custody. Even in their worst nightmares, Serbs probably do not expect a foreign occupation of Belgrade.

There is no doubt about the illegality of what is happening in former Yugoslavia. International law rules out the ill-treatment or deportation of civilians, the murder of prisoners of war and the plunder of property. The Geneva conventions make specific provision for wars inside nations. Nor can there be any doubt about the need to document and condemn these crimes and to warn individuals that they may be called to account. There is even a chance that some deterrent pressure can be exerted on people such as the commandants of camps, whose crimes are committed with premeditated deliberation. Nobody should be under any illusion, however, that invoking the law will have more than a marginal effect without the will and the means to enforce it.