Summary: The U.N. may hope to deter Balkan atrocities with the prospect of war crimes trials, but ambiguities complicate such tribunals, as Nuremberg showed. In this case, the U.N. may have to account for its prolonged inaction and its willingness to negotiate with those it hopes to prosecute.
Samuel Zygelbojm was a young Polish Jew in May 1943, when by some miracle he managed to escape the ghetto in Warsaw and, with the help of the Polish resistance, get himself to London.
From the moment he arrived, Zygelbojm pleaded with the authorities to do something, anything, to stop the murder of Jews in the Nazi extermination camps. If they would just bomb the railways lines leading to the camps, gas chambers and crematoriums. If they would just warn the Nazi leaders that they would be held a accountable after the war. If they would just do something to stop the horror.
According to Rabbi Judea B. Miller of the Temple B'rith Kodesh in Rochester, N.Y., who retells the story of Samuel Zygelbojm in a recent issue of America magazine, Zygelbojm hit a wall of disbelief everywhere he went. He was dismissed as just another crazy Pole exaggerating what the Nazis were doing in his country. In desperation, Zygelbojm wrote a letter to the New York Times and then committed suicide on May 12, 1943.
The determination never again to be haunted by sad tales like this no doubt played a large part in the unanimous vote by the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 22 to create an interantional tribunal to prosecute those responsible for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Stating that such crimes constitute a "threat to international peace and security," the council expressed its determination to put an end to them and to establish an international criminal court for the prosecution of people "responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991."
U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was given two months to come up with proposals for how to prosecute those …