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Bosnia: Catching War Criminals--An Analysis

Prague, 22 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Scarcely a day seems to pass without some story appearing in the news to suggest that NATO troops in Bosnia may soon try to catch Radovan Karadzic or other prominent war criminals.

The issue of bringing indicted war criminals to justice is central to the civilian provisions of the Dayton agreement. But whereas NATO has fairly rigorously enforced the military aspects of that treaty, most of the civilian provisions remain a dead letter. These include the rights of freedom of movement and of refugees to go home.

The treaty further calls for the establishment of joint Bosnian institutions in what is supposed to be one state consisting of the Republika Srpska and the mainly Croat and Muslim Federation. The civilian provisions also include trials for war criminals.

The reason for bringing such people to justice is the one set down by the Allies at the end of World War II, namely that the crimes of guilty individuals must be brought to light and those persons duly tried and sentenced if societies as a whole are to make a new beginning and put the war behind them. In other words, Karadzic, Gen. Ratko Mladic, and some dozens of other individuals must go to The Hague lest the Serbs as a people continue to be demonized by many in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere for war crimes.

One reason for the timing of the latest talk about catching war criminals is that the Clinton administration has realized that time is running out on the Dayton agreement: SFOR's mandate has less than one more year to run. Another reason is that, as the September 14 local elections draw near, the international community is anxious to reduce the political influence of Karadzic and the other key war criminals on all sides.

Accordingly, U.S. envoys Richard Holbrooke and Robert Gelbard and other diplomats have put pressure on Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to hand over indicted Croats to The Hague. Top Croatian officials have said that at least one prominent war criminal might be put on a plane to Holland within days, but so far none has gone. It is not clear to what extent Holbrooke and the other diplomats have sought to have possible Muslim war criminals arrested, but Serbs and Croats alike charge that the court has not indicted a sufficient number of Muslims.

But to return to Karadzic. It would be wrong to say that his arrest and trial would solve Bosnia's problems, as some press accounts suggest. It is also unlikely, given his record of lying to foreigners, that the court would ever gain the whole truth from him. The trial of Karadzic would nonetheless be an important step toward clarifying the historical record and establishing justice.