War Crimes: A History of Trials and Errors

By Bering-Jensen, Henrik | Insight on the News, March 29, 1993 | Go to article overview

War Crimes: A History of Trials and Errors


Bering-Jensen, Henrik, Insight on the News


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 responsible for the ethnic cleansing -- the forced deportation of ethnic minorities from newly occupied areas, with mass killings and organized rape -- that has been a constant feature of life in the former Yugoslavia since it fell apart in 1991. Backers hope the prospect of facinbbg such a tribunal will deter those ordering and committing the atrocities.

The war in the Balkans has already cost an estimated 30,000 lives and forced an additional 1.5 million people to flee their homes. Most analysts assign a hierarchy of blame for the ctrocities, with the Serbs who want to create a greater Serbia at the top of the heap. The U.N. mentioned no names in voting for the tribunal. But in December, the State Department, then led by Lawrence Eagleburger, published a list of possible targets of war crimes prosecution.

On the list were Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic. Eight Serb and Croat military leaders were also featured, including Drago Prcac, a Serbian concentration camp commander, and Zeilko Razniatovic, leader of the paramilitary Serbian force known as the Tigers, who is alleged to have killed about 3,000 civilians near the town of Brcko in Bosnia.

Though welcoming any move that focuses attention on the suffering in his country, Bosnia's envoy to the United Nations, Muhamed Sacirbey, warns against believing that the simple establishment of a tribunal will be a deterrent. "So much has already happened. The international community has lost so much credibility," says Sacirbey, "that we still have to question whether this is going to be something real."

In the U.N. proposal, Sacirbey notes, there is no mechanism for bringing the war criminals to trial. And France, which formally proposed the tribunal, suggested that those found guilty be condemned to long prison sentences, not death. …

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