War crimes and punishment

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The speed at which news is reported, consumed and then forgotten made it almost inevitable that the horrific story of Srebrenica should drop from the headlines barely one day after it dominated our television screens and front pages.

Yet, if the fundamental principles underpinning our societies are to retain their strength, then we absolutely must not allow Srebrenica to fade from the memory. More than that, there must be a relentless effort to track down and bring to justice the monsters who tortured and killed an untold number of Muslims after Serb forces overran the eastern Bosnian enclave last month. It is in the interests not just of the Bosnian Muslims, not just of all peoples in former Yugoslavia, but of the world as a whole.

The Srebrenica massacres are not a matter of allegation. The US government has provided what it rightly calls "compelling evidence" that the slaughters took place and a well documented United Nations investigation, not yet publicly released, confirms that Bosnian Serb forces committed appalling abuses of human rights after capturing Srebrenica.

Finally, a number of Western news organisations including the Independent have published eye-witness testimony and other supporting evidence of war crimes. Only the exact number of dead remains in doubt. There are justified fears, however, that it runs into several thousands.

That something terrible was going to happen became clear when the Bosnian Serbs' first act after moving into Srebrenica was to separate men and boys of fighting age from women and children. Scarcely bothering to conceal their intentions, Bosian Serb officers said they intended to sift through the males for "war criminals". The prisoners were led off to secret locations; Red Cross officials were at first denied access to the prisoners and, when the Serbs finally relented, they found only 200 or so men. Thousands of others are unaccounted for. If they are still in Bosnian Serb custody it would be easy enough for Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic to produce them.

The Srebrenica killings amount to one of the most hideous atrocities of the Yugoslav conflict, a deliberate act of savagery against defenceless human beings which cannot be explained away on the grounds that it occurred in the heat of battle. If the UN War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague is to justify its existence it must pursue this case to the very end, no matter how many years it takes. There can be no amnesties or deals. Anything short of full punishment for the killers will merely increase the likelihood that one day the world will see more Srebrenicas.

The tribunal's work has been complicated in the past by the UN's other activities in former Yugoslavia. By naming Messrs Karadzic and Mladic as suspected war criminals, one arm of the UN appeared to be seeking to prosecute men from whom another arm of the UN was seeking permission to deliver humanitarian aid and arrange ceasefires.

Until recently the Bosnian-Serb leaders successfully exploited the confusion. But now they are under real pressure as a result of Croatia's recapture of the rebel Krajina Serb region and the refusal of Serbia's President Milosevic to come to their aid. The opportunity must not be lost. Srebrenica is a case where diplomacy must give way to the universal imperative of justice.

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