Time is running out for the bad guys

On July 11, 1995, armed U.N. peacekeepers stood by passively as Bosnian Serb troops overran the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. Although the U.N. Security Council had declared Srebrenica a “safe area,” the Bosnian Serb forces massacred nearly 8,000 Muslim civilians in the days following the city’s fall.

Few of the massacre’s planners have been brought to justice. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has charged Radovan Karadzic, the wartime Bosnian Serb president, and Ratko Mladic, his top general, with war crimes. But although their whereabouts have been an open secret for a decade, neither NATO nor the Bosnian Serb authorities has summoned up the political will to arrest them.

Little wonder, then, that elaborate plans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre have left some with a bad taste in their mouths. Carla Del Ponte, the international tribunal prosecutor, has refused to join dignitaries at the commemoration. Calling the failure to apprehend Mladic and Karadzic a “disgrace and a shame,” Del Ponte says she “cannot face the victims.”

Justice isn’t everything, of course. Neither Del Ponte nor anyone else should imagine that punishing Mladic and Karadzic will compensate Bosnians for the suffering, or erase the international community’s culpability for failing to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in the first place. The dead will stay dead.


But though it’s only a distant second-best to preventing atrocities, punishing perpetrators is still important. It acknowledges the suffering of the victims and in the long run could help deter future abuses by forcing the bad guys to ask themselves if the abuses are worth it, given the increasing likelihood of ending up in jail somewhere down the line.

Even with Mladic and Karadzic still at large, events of the last decade offer reason to hope that the age of impunity is gradually coming to an end. In March 1999, the British House of Lords ruled that Augusto Pinochet, Chilean dictator from 1973 to 1990, had no immunity from prosecution for the torture of political dissidents. The landmark decision brought about a sea change in Chile’s domestic politics, giving Chileans the courage to hold Pinochet -- long considered politically untouchable -- responsible for the misery he had caused. Today, he faces charges of murder and torture in Chile’s courts.

Elsewhere, high-level perpetrators have similarly been forced to face the music. In June 1999, former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was transferred to the tribunal’s custody, and he is now on trial for his role in the former Yugoslavia’s wars. In Rwanda, where the 1994 genocide engineered by the Hutu government killed 800,000 ethnic Tutsis, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has convicted several top political officials, including Jean Kambanda, Rwanda’s former prime minister.

In Sierra Leone, an internationally backed Special Court is trying several former government ministers for their actions during the country’s brutal civil war. In Argentina, where the government’s “dirty war” killed an estimated 14,000 dissidents between 1976 and 1983, the Supreme Court recently declared unconstitutional amnesty laws that have long hindered prosecutions of those responsible. And in Iraq, Saddam Hussein is finally being held accountable by his countrymen for his years of rule by terror.

The quest for justice has met with inevitable setbacks as well as successes. At the Hague, Milosevic’s trial has dragged on for four years with no end in sight. In Indonesia, political interference with trials has led to the acquittal of nearly all military officials responsible for massacres in East Timor. Another semi-international court, the Special Tribunal for Cambodia, may not have sufficient political independence to bring surviving Khmer Rouge officials to justice. In 1998, an international treaty established a permanent International Criminal Court at the Hague, but its viability remains in question because the Bush administration opposes it, citing fears of politically motivated prosecutions.

All the same, I doubt that Mladic and Karadzic sleep soundly these days. They must know that sooner or later, they’re likely to end up in the dock. Already, neither man can travel abroad for fear of arrest.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Around the world, the message is going out to those who commit human rights abuses, whether insurgents, terrorists or government officials: You may get away with it for years -- but you won’t get away with it forever.

It’s a message our own political leaders would do well to heed. The human rights abuses committed by the United States in the war on terrorism don’t begin to approach the severity of the abuses routinely committed in many other parts of the world. Still, some U.S. policies have rightly drawn international condemnation.

Our indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without due process, our alleged use of interrogation techniques such as “waterboarding” (strapping detainees to a board and lowering them into water so that they think they’re being drowned ) and our system of secret “renditions” (seizing suspected terrorists in one country and transporting them to another to be held, interrogated or imprisoned) violate both international and U.S. law.

Although for the time being the American public seems oddly passive in the face of these abuses, the experience of other nations suggests that this passivity won’t last forever.

Ultimately, the Bush administration’s actions in the war on terrorism will be judged by history. Someday, they may also be judged by the courts.