Jewish Groups Welcome Creation of a Balkan War Crimes Tribunal

Jewish groups are welcoming news that the United Nations will set up a war crimes tribunal to prosecute those committing atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

Organizational officials say the tribunal will send the proper message to war criminals in the Balkans and around the world, causing them to think twice about their actions. But at the same time, they caution that the practical results of such an international tribunal are not yet clear.

The U.N. Security Council voted Monday to create the tribunal, which would be the first such entity since the aftermath of World War II.

Over the past few months, Jewish groups have been among those calling for the United States and the international community to take stronger action to curb atrocities taking place in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Many in the Jewish community feel the Serbian “ethnic cleansing” campaign in Bosnia is reminiscent of some of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

At its annual plenum last week, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, an umbrella group of national and local Jewish organizations, passed a resolution calling for an international war crimes tribunal.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said the Security Council’s decision to do so is “very pivotal,” whether or not the tribunal succeeds in prosecuting war criminals.

If the tribunal fails, Cooper said, “Nazi-like behavior” could increase, and if it succeeds, it “might force people around the world to take a look” at such behavior.

“The U.N. has taken an important step,” he said.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, said that even if the tribunal, like the Nuremberg trials, succeeds only in bringing a small fraction of the war criminals to justice, it will have merit.

“Sometimes a symbolic action, for the sake of history, is almost as important as the degree of justice meted out,” he said.

‘A MORAL MESSAGE OF CONSCIENCE’

Steinberg said the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which has been prosecuting Nazi war criminals, will likely play an important role in lending its expertise.

Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor who is national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that “every Jew and every human being with a memory of the Holocaust welcomes this decision.”

He said he wished there had been a United Nations or a similar body with the power to set up a war crimes tribunal in 1933, when the Nazis first came to power in Germany.

Foxman said there is “always a need to deliver a moral message of conscience, and at the very least, that’s what this decision will do.”

“It’s an important first step,” said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative for the American Jewish Congress. Pelavin said his group has called repeatedly for the creation of a war crimes tribunal.

“We’re pleased to see that the U.N. has taken steps necessary to constitute a tribunal,” he said.

AJCongress recently took the lead in sending a letter to Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, calling for full funding of a U.N. war crimes tribunal.

“We think this is an important step being taken now,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of European affairs for the American Jewish Committee, which has also called for a tribunal.

It is “the right thing to do,” Baker said, adding his group hopes it will provide “some evidence, some help in moving along efforts to bring an end to the conflict.”

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