Aidid’s Arrest Is Crucial to U.N. Principle : War crimes: How the Somali is brought to justice will become precedent for international law.

<i> Theodore C. Sorensen is an international lawyer in New York. Christopher Jochnick is a director of the Institute of Economic and Social Rights, New York. </i>

Last month, in an unprecedented action, the United Nations ordered the arrest, detention and prosecution of Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid for, among other crimes, the premeditated slaughter of U.S. peacekeepers in Mogadishu. As the difficulties of implementing that order become clear, its wisdom is being debated by Italy and others. Some even question whether the United Nations is truly intent on capturing Aidid, or is merely posturing. This is a defining moment for the United Nations and international law.

The post-Cold War world depends increasingly on U.N. personnel to halt ethnic, religious and nationalist clashes, not only for reasons of humanitarianism and human rights but also to prevent the spread of violence. They represent no one nation but all. Their safety is our safety.

If the most flagrant defiance of U.N. authority in 32 years goes unpunished, if the world cannot call to account so clear a violation of universally accepted international law, then neither the United Nations’ reputation nor its representatives will be safe hereafter. International law will be deemed a charade, a chimera. No Serbian perpetrator or victim of human-rights violations will take seriously the United Nations’ plan for a Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal. The Pol Pots, Kadafis and Savimbis of the world will still thumb their noses at U.N. decisions; and “war crimes” will still be no more than rhetoric.

This must not happen. If U.N. forces are genuinely seeking Aidid, whether they wait him out, root him out, starve him out, bomb him out or induce a henchman to sell him out, whether he is seized next month or next year, whether he is tried in Mogadishu, Geneva or the Hague, before or after stability returns to Somalia, all matter less than the United Nations’ determination to persevere. And it is the United Nations, not the United States, that must visibly be in charge of the entire Aidid operation--arrest, detention, prosecution and (if he is found guilty) punishment.


Inevitably, there are charges that this prosecution exceeds the treatment of equally heinous malefactors or is politically motivated, fears that arresting an armed criminal surrounded by armed followers and their families will be risky and violent or will make him a martyr, and concerns that U.N. prosecutors might not find a valid forum or a rational line between his alleged crime and the legally acceptable use of weapons. But every law-enforcement official faces such challenges. They call for careful thought, but not surrender.

The Aidid arrest order was unprecedented but not unauthorized. Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, legally binding every member, authorizes the Security Council to take any necessary measures to restore international peace and security. International law authorizes every nation to bring to justice an international outlaw. The fact that Aidid’s principal victims were Pakistani Muslims carrying a flag of peace on a humanitarian mission to help Somalis, and the fact that, by starvation, murder and the use of women and children as shields, he has killed more Somalis than foreigners, should help defuse any claim that his prosecution is based on color, creed, a colonial mentality or military victory.

The arrest and trial of Aidid take on added importance because they would be unprecedented in modern history. That trial, conducted before a truly international, U.N.-established court, with every safeguard ensuring an impartial judgment--not by a group of victorious nations or superior nations or hegemonic nations but by the United Nations--would be an invaluable precedent. The establishment of a global tribunal to try international war criminals, terrorists, drug lords, slave traffickers, human-rights violators and murderers of U.N. peacekeepers is overdue.

To arrest and put on trial the leader of a fatal, brutal ambush of a U.N. peacekeeping contingent is not, as some now charge, an act of revenge or retaliation. It would be an act of law. Without effective enforcement, there is no law. Without law, there is no peace.