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Jews Join Coalition to Bring Bosnian War Criminals to Justice

July 16, 1997
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It was December 1992 when Jewish activists gathered across from the site of the future Holocaust museum for the first of many calls for U.S. intervention in Bosnia.

Eyewitnesses were coming forward with stories of war crimes, mass murders and systematic rapes in the war-torn former Yugoslavia.

This week, a coalition of groups, including 19 Jewish organizations, again gathered on the lawn across from the now- completed U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, this time to call for the arrest of Bosnian war criminals.

The two events could not have been more different.

In 1992, a freezing rain soaked the almost all-Jewish crowd as organizers dedicated Chanukah 1992 to the people of Bosnia.

This week, the mercury soared toward 100 degrees and a broad coalition of ethnic, religious and secular groups joined Jewish organizations in a call to action.

No longer were activists talking about arms’ embargoes and truces. This time they were speaking of justice and war criminals.

“At that time in 1992, we were literally facing the mass murder of thousands and the use of rape as a vehicle of war,” Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which co-sponsored the 1992 rally, said in an interview.

“Now we’re facing very different challenges — challenges of justice.”

Fifty years after the Holocaust, the prolonged Bosnian conflict hits a sensitive nerve in the Jewish community. Once again, issues of genocide and war criminals and tribunals are plaguing the European continent.

Jewish activists have signed on to the latest push for justice, initiated by a group known as the Coalition for International Justice. Founded two years ago around the time of the Dayton peace accords that ended the armed conflict in Bosnia, the coalition supports the international war crimes tribunal, which is charged with prosecuting war criminals.

The coalition has gathered the support of dozens of groups, representing tens of millions of Americans, to urge President Clinton to take the lead in arresting war criminals from the former Yugoslavia.

In a letter to the president, published in The New York Times, the coalition wrote: “We are deeply distressed that indicted war criminals are living freely and with impunity, while American soldiers, the largest contingent of the NATO force, have apparently been denied the authority to make arrests.

“By pursuing such a policy the United States may have been colluding in the protection of individuals charged with war crimes.”

Having assembled broad backing, the coalition now hopes to impress upon the Clinton administration the public support for the use of force, if necessary, to arrest the war criminals.

The coalition said that if American allies do not complete the task of arresting indicted war criminals, “the United States must take the lead, accept the potential risk of confrontation, and act on its own.”

While the letter had been planned for months, its release came only days after British forces in Bosnia arrested one Bosnian Serb indicated for war crimes and the tribunal sentenced another to 20 years in jail. Another Bosnian Serb was killed when he resisted arrest last week.

Clinton had given the nod to the British raid — and as the groups gathered for their news conference near the Holocaust museum, the president was talking about war criminals at the White House.

The Bosnian Serbs “have clearly not complied with that provision of the Dayton agreements — in terms that they have made no effort to help us get any of those people,” the president said, referring to indicted war criminals.

By signing on to the coalition’s effort, the Jewish community broke almost two years of silence on Bosnia following the Dayton peace accords and an end to the armed conflict.

One of the provisions of the agreement is the arrest of war criminals.

While some Jews said they had been waiting to give the 1995 peace accords a chance, others suggested that the Jewish community should have taken action to push for the arrest of war criminals six months or a year ago.

“Why now? Because somebody took the initiative. We did not, I am sorry to say,” said Leonard Fein, director of the commission on social action at the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Fein, a longtime advocate of a strong American role in Bosnia, said that this generation will be “judged on how seriously it views crimes against humanity.”

“How can you talk about international codes if you let the most egregious acts of violence and criminality go unpunished?”

Expressing similar sentiments, former Sen. Bob Dole and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) urged Clinton to act. Both have recently returned from fact-finding tours of Bosnia.

“We risked our national reputation and the lives of our troops to restore order and to create the conditions for peace,” Lieberman said at a news conference here Tuesday. “Now we must take the next step to bring justice to Bosnia.”

Virtually all Jewish groups — including Reform, Conservative and Orthodox organizations, women’s groups and defense organizations — signed the letter. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, formerly known as the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, also signed on.

Although the Holocaust museum did not sign the letter to Clinton, its Committee on Conscience has urged the president to take similar action.

In a June 17 resolution, the committee called on Clinton to “take vigorous action to ensure, by all means necessary, that those charged by the Tribunal are apprehended and surrendered to it.”

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