US, UN Raise Issue of War Crimes

Article excerpt

AS World War II took its savage toll on Europe, the British government kept a list of German leaders it wanted to shoot without the benefit of trial after the war. Instead, in Nuremberg, Germany, judges representing the United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union tried many of the men, some of whom were later hanged.

Now, US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger is calling for a "second Nuremberg" to try alleged Serbian and Croatian war criminals.

"The fact of the matter is that we know that crimes against humanity have occurred, and we know when and where they occurred," Secretary Eagleburger said in Geneva Dec. 16.

Three months ago the US government began turning over to the United Nations the first of four reports on alleged violations of humanitarian law in the former Yugoslavia. The reports include grisly details of mass executions, torture, and rape.

The US has identified some of the individuals who are suspected to have committed the crimes. Eagleburger wants to try the political leaders of the suspects as well, so that these leaders can tell of any actions they took to prevent or punish the atrocities.

On Oct. 26, United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali appointed a commission of five international legal experts to examine and analyze information about possible breaches of international law on wartime conduct. This commission is now in Geneva investigating reported violations of various international conventions that define the rights of prisoners of war and civilians caught in war zones.

Whether the world has the stomach for a war-crimes trial is still unclear. "There may well be a legal basis for a trial, but what he {Eagleburger} is doing is taking this legal basis into an area that is full of politics," says Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor in the second year of Nuremberg trials and author of a book on the trials (see accompanying story).

The politics of war-crimes trials can be seen in Australia, which in 1987 established a war-crimes inquiry for crimes committed during World War II. After spending five years and A$20 million ($13.8 million), the government has finally started one trial. Although the investigation covered about 200 people, only six people may ultimately face trial. Newspapers have editorialized about the high cost of the investigation. "We've had to create a separate legal system," says Brian O'Callaghan, legal counsel for the Australian Embassy in Washington. …