There will be no Nuremberg here: The Security Council decision to set up a war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia is a political charade - but perhaps it is a necessary one, says Conor Cruise O'Brien

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The UN Security Council decision to set up a war crimes tribunal for crimes committed in former Yugoslavia is being presented by its - mainly American - champions as a historic breakthrough. Certainly, it is the first such international tribunal to be established since the Nuremberg (November 1945 to October 1946) and Tokyo (May 1946 to November 1948) war crimes trials. But the contrasts between those earlier proceedings and the tribunal constituted this week are so vast as to render this a clear case of 'the first time as tragedy, the second as farce'.

In the earlier cases, a war had been fought and won. The victorious powers who set up the tribunals held the leaders of the losers as their prisoners, had occupied their countries, and were in a position to execute the verdicts of their own tribunals. Those who set up the present war crimes tribunal have not fought any war in former Yugoslavia, let alone won one. They occupy no territory and hold no prisoners. The principal persons at whom the Security Council decision is believed to be aimed - the leader of the Serbs, Slobodan Milosevic, and the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic - are not merely still at large and politically active: their co-operation is being actively sought by the very people - primarily the Americans and the British - who moved to set up the tribunal that is supposed to put them and others on trial.

We are asked to believe that the fear of being prosecuted for war crimes will put these people on their best behaviour and induce them to play the roles assigned to them in the Vance-Owen peace plan, or whatever variant of that chimera may be eventually agreed. An American commentator this week attributed to 'the Europeans' . . . 'the hope that the threat of an international war crimes tribunal and tighter economic sanctions will force the factions to lay down their weapons and accept a negotiated agreement'.

There may be academics in some of the more remote schools of 'peace studies' and 'conflict resolution' who cherish such a hope; but none of the practitioners, whether European or American, can seriously entertain it. War criminals, whatever else they may be, are tough people and not easily intimidated. Those at the top constantly risk assassination; the rank and file are absorbed in the daily routine of killing. The unlikely and contingent prospect of being put on trial before a war crimes tribunal will not hold many terrors for them. Moreover, their political leaders have by this time sufficient experience in international diplomacy to be aware that the war crimes tribunal is unlikely ever to try anybody for anything.

As well as a move towards justice, this Security Council decision is also being presented as a breakthrough towards effective maintenance of international peace and security. On the contrary, what it reflects is an ominous waning in great power consensus over former Yugoslavia, and, potentially, over other matters as well.

The political background to the decision to set up a war crimes tribunal is as follows: early this month in New York, David Owen lauded the Vance-Owen peace plan for the division of Bosnia into 10 autonomous zones, with provision for international policing of these arrangements. The Americans extended a cautious general welcome, but with the explicit reservation that the plan conceded too much Bosnian territory to the Serbs, thus rewarding aggression. A more rooted objection, less clearly voiced, was that the plan provides for the contribution of American ground forces to the policing of Bosnia. This goes against not only Mr Clinton's campaign pledges, but also the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Americans gave a non-committal blessing to the general principles of Vance-Owen, with the understanding that its existing provisos would be revised to the detriment of the Serbs. President Clinton then sounded out the Russians, knowing that they would want the plan, if acceptable at all, to be revised in a pro-Serbian sense.

On 18 February, the Russian parliament voted 'to ask the United Nations to lift sanctions on Serbia and impose them on Croatia'. The official position of the Russian government is more subtly expressed but aimed in the same direction. It calls for 'the imposition of UN sanctions against Croatia, if the Zagreb government continues to attack Serbian-controlled enclaves in the republic'.

The Russian statement says that Russia supports the idea of a multinational force to help carry out the Vance-Owen plan. There follows the throw-away line: 'Russia is considering the possibility of including a Russian contingent in such forces.'

With these words, the Vance-Owen dream turns to nightmare. With American and Russian contingents engaged in policing Vance-Owen, the police force would be divided within itself over who were the victims, to be defended, and who the criminals, to be resisted and overcome. The Americans would be helping the Muslims, the Russians the Serbs. The European contributing countries, under strong German influence, would be partial to the Croats. The police force, which is supposed to end the Bosnian civil war, would be sucked into that war on different sides.

Fortunately, that will probably not happen because the fundamental disagreement between the Americans and Russians over former Yugoslavia is likely to avert major external military intervention. Whatever feeble breath remained in the lungs of the Vance-Owen peace plan has been forced out of them by the approving hug of the Russian bear.

This is the general political context in which the Security Council decided to set up the tribunal. That decision is a simulacrum of, and substitute for, the consensus in the council that existed in the late Gorbachev and early Yeltsin years. Now Russia, under growing internal pressure, is beginning to withdraw from that consensus. The war crimes resolution (differently understood by America, Russia and Western Europe) carries the reassuring message to all that the villains of the piece are about to be punished. The villains are differently identified by different publics. But that will not bother the tribunal since (if it ever meets) it will never be able to agree on identifying the villains and (if it ever did) could never catch them.

The war crimes tribunal is a charade, but that does not mean that it serves no useful purpose. When governments are under pressure from public opinion - 'Don't just sit there, do something]' - a harmless diversion may be a more sensible response than a far-reaching but foolish initiative, like policing the Vance-Owen plan. Much of the external side of international politics consists of a series of charades, designed to keep the children quiet.

Mr Clinton, despite his fairly bellicose posture, wants to keep out of a probable quagmire in former Yugoslavia. Vance-Owen was presented as a clever way around the quagmire. It never was; it was a roundabout way in. Mr Clinton intends his airdrop as a way of keeping Americans out of the quagmire. Unfortunately, it may also increase the risk for the European forces already there. The real need is to substitute a policy of holding the ring around the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, for the policy of progressive intervention that has prevailed up to now. But if that shift of policy should need to be disguised by more charades, then let us have more charades.

(Photograph omitted)