The Case for War Crimes Trials in Yugoslavia

Courtesy Reuters


The credibility of international humanitarian law demands a war crimes tribunal to hold accountable those responsible for gross violations in the former Yugoslavia. Opponents in the bitter ethnic and religious conflict have subjected civilians to summary execution, torture, rape, mass internment, deportation, destruction or confiscation of property and other violations of their rights. Many thousands have died.

A war crimes tribunal, sought by the U.N. Security Council, would be the first since the Nuremberg and Far East trials following World War II. The Security Council's decision, embodied in U.N. Resolution 808, derives its binding authority from the U.N. Charter's Chapter VII provisions regarding threats to peace, breaches of peace and acts of aggression. The Security Council's determination that violations of international humanitarian law constitute a threat to international peace and security and that the establishment of the tribunal would contribute to the restoration and the maintenance of peace is of ground-breaking importance. Considered from a different perspective, the Security Council's decision to establish a war crimes tribunal reflects the failure of the Security Council's primary mission to end the conflict and the atrocities.

Reaffirming the Nuremberg tenets and the principle of accountability should deter those in Yugoslavia and elsewhere who envisage "final solutions" to their conflicts with ethnic and religious minorities. A war crimes tribunal could also educate the general public not to accept egregious violations of human rights and humanitarian norms. Above all, there is a moral imperative to rigorously prosecute the offenders, given the deliberate, systematic and outrageous nature of the violations in the former Yugoslavia.


There is nothing new, of course, in prosecuting offenders against the laws and customs of war as reflected in national military codes. For centuries military commanders--from Henry V of England, under his famous ordinances of war in 1419, to the American military prosecutions of soldiers involved in the My Lai massacre under the U.S. Code of Military Justice--have enforced such laws against

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