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Behind the Headlines: War Crimes Tribunal Confronts Different Conditions from 1945

As world Jewry marks Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, the message goes forth that the crimes of the Nazis will not be forgotten.

But 51 years after the end of World War II, the world has experienced a new series of large-scale war crimes, in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

And for the Jewish community in particular, the desire to see those responsible brought to justice is particularly keen.

“We Jews are the conscience of the Shoah,” Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, said in a telephone interview.

“It’s our responsibility to help others. At least we can share the expertise we have gained in 50 years of experience — not just in bringing criminals to justice, but in commemorating [the victims], in helping survivors.”

The first international war crimes tribunal to be convened since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II is attempting to bring the suspected perpetrators of recent war crimes to justice.

But the challenges confronting them are daunting.

The atrocities in question are all too familiar: torture, rape, enslavement, genocide.

They are reminiscent of the crimes for which 19 senior Nazi leaders were convicted — 12 of them sentenced to death — in 13 trials in Nuremberg in 1945 and 1946 and for which dozens of other lesser figures were later tried in Nuremberg and Tokyo.

But it is a different world today, and these have been different wars.

Conditions are far removed from those of half a century ago.

Images of ravaged bodies, brutalized refugees, mass graves and abused prisoners have been seared into the collective mind of the world via television and the press, but political, logistical and other considerations are making the tribunal’s job very difficult.

“There is no question that the models we are facing today are very different,” Zuroff said. “It is a tremendous challenge.”

One of the challenges is that, unlike after World War II, in neither the former Yugoslavia nor in Rwanda is there a clear victor. There also is not a clear vanquished.

And more often than not, the atrocities in question were not committed by invading foreign armies; they were perpetrated by fellow citizens, close neighbors and even one-time friends.

Konstanty Gebert, a Polish Jewish commentator and journalist who has closely followed the fighting in the former Yugoslavia, noted another difficulty.

In the wake of the Dayton agreement that brokered a fragile peace in the region, “the basic guilty party is still in power. No one wants to see them prosecuted because it will upset the apple cart.”

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his army commander Ratko Mladic, for example, both have been indicted on genocide in the killing of up to 6,000 Muslims in July 1995 in the town of Srebrenica.

They also have been indicted on the siege of Sarajevo and on holding U.N. peacekeeping troops hostage.

Some observers feel that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic also should be indicted. On March 28, a tribunal prosecutor was quoted as saying that the Belgrade government was “criminal” for sheltering and even rewarding accused war criminals.

Croatian officials also have dragged their feet in cooperating with the tribunal.

“The key question, in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, is political will,” Zuroff said. “It always comes down to politics. It’s not just a judicial issue. The Dayton accord can say that the perpetrators will be brought to trial — but you are negotiating with them.

“Is peace to be obtained at all costs? Forgetting justice? We feel that there can be no lasting peace without justice.”

Gebert said in a telephone interview from Warsaw that whether it would be possible to carry out a war crimes trial under these circumstances would be the “$64,000 question.”

Based in The Hague, the International War Crimes Tribunal was set up in May 1993 by the U.N. Security Council to prosecute war crimes in former Yugoslavia.

Its mandate was later extended to cover the genocide in Rwanda.

To date, the tribunal has indicted 57 people in former Yugoslavia, but only three are in custody.

Forty-six of the indicted are Serbs, including Karadzic and Mladic.

In Rwanda, where in 1994 nearly 1 million people were killed in 100 days – – what Zuroff has referred to as “the fastest genocide in history” — the tribunal has indicted only eight people, though some 60,000 more are being held in local jails under local charges.

No one from either conflict has been brought to trial.

Political ambiguity aside, the sheer physical difficulties in carrying out the tribunal’s mandate are daunting.

The Yugoslav tribunal “has been bedeviled by the unrealistic expectations of those who believe that television and press reporting can seamlessly translate into the hard evidence necessary for criminal prosecution,” Stefanie Grant, director of program and policy at the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, stated last year.

There are thousands of allegations on file, and the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Richard Goldstone, must select which cases to investigate, identify and locate witnesses and then interview them “to establish that criminal offenses such as murder, rape, enslavement or deportation took place,” Grant said.

Further, the tribunal must also guarantee safe conditions to ensure that witnesses will testify in an eventual trial.

In Rwanda, the hunt for the perpetrators of the genocide and attempts to bring them to justice are made even more difficult by the fact that the country has had to rebuild its judiciary system, among other institutions, after the slaughter.

Moreover, many of the people wanted for their part in the genocide are known to be hiding in countries such as Zaire, Cameroon, Burundi and even Belgium.

After spending a career hunting down the perpetrators of the Nazi’s Final Solution against Europe’s Jews, Zuroff is now serving as an adviser to Rwanda’s National Commission on Genocide.

“Our major role is enlisting public opinion to create the political will” to seek out the perpetrators and bring them to trial, he said.

“Reconciliation can only be rooted in justice,” he said.

Zuroff said he felt that it is extremely important to follow the example of Nuremberg and bring the leaders held responsible for war crimes, and as many perpetrators as possible, to justice.

“At Nuremberg, the political and ideological leadership of the Nazi Party were brought to trial,” he said. “They were held accountable.

“It allowed people to look to the future.”

Failing to punish those held accountable, he said, could lead to a recurrent cycle of violence.

“We don’t want that in 30 years [today's] victims say, ‘Look, nothing happened,'” he said.

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