- The Washington Times - Monday, December 30, 2002

President Bush has thus far done an admirable job in the war on terrorism, but in the Balkans he is asleep at the wheel. The president has been so preoccupied with combating terrorism and attempting to revive a sluggish economy, that he has neglected an area of strategic necessity which has revealed twice in the 20th century that it will be ignored only at dire peril.
The problem in the Balkans is that the war-crimes tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, for the former Yugoslavia is running roughshod over the basic principles of justice and fair play it was mandated to enforce. Instead of restoring calm and order by patiently identifying those who committed war crimes during the Croat-Serb conflict (1991-95), the tribunal is behaving in a sloppy and high-handed manner likely to spark tensions once again.
Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor, is presiding over an office that is out of control and drunk with power. Rather than undertaking the slow, difficult and painful process of identifying each and every soldier or paramilitary fighter who committed an atrocity, the prosecutor's office has issued broad and vague indictments against leading Croatian generals such as Ante Gotovina and Janko Bobetko. These men are not accused of a specific crime but simply of "command responsibility" for isolated crimes that took place during major military operations. This is akin to indicting a police chief for an act of police brutality perpetrated by a subordinate simply because the chief has "command responsibility" over his unit. This prosecutor would be laughed out of every courtroom in the Western world.
Furthermore, The Hague is treating Balkan countries as though they were second-rate fiefdoms. In an attempt to stifle the groundswell of criticism that is emerging against Mrs. Del Ponte's office, members of her staff such as spokeswoman Florence Hartmann have sought to influence and intimidate news agencies in Croatia in order to prevent publication of condemnatory articles especially if these articles are written by Western journalists.
The Hague is thus failing to respect the national sovereignty of this newly independent nation and is badly damaging all efforts to establish freedom of the press in this young democracy.
Moreover, The Hague is now rearing its ugly head toward the United States. Investigators have begun to make inquiries into the American role in Operation Storm, the August 1995 offensive launched by Croatia that effectively ended the Croat-Serb war.
Despite the recent denials by the State Department, it is well known by all who have observed this scene closely that the United States had ultimate "command responsibility" over Operation Storm. Washington gave the operation the green light and provided Zagreb with vital military and intelligence assistance such as the use of unmanned drones and encryption gear. Does this mean we will soon face the humiliating prospect of American officials being dragged before the tribunal? Will our generals be treated with the same contempt? Will our journalists be intimidated when they criticize The Hague? If this scenario is unacceptable to Americans, then why should the Croatian people accept it?
And of course, we must ask Mrs. Del Ponte: Who has "command responsibility" over her office? How do we obtain redress for the incompetence and misuse of power committed by her staffers? It is clear that Mrs. Del Ponte must resign; the charges against the generals must be dropped immediately; and a mechanism must be established to curtail the arbitrary power of The Hague.
American leadership is required. Mr. Bush came to power pledging humility in foreign affairs: he must demonstrate this by protecting the rights of weaker nations and calling to account this arrogant court. If the Bush administration does not act soon, nationalist sentiment will be inflamed in the Balkans once again. Furthermore, the president's indifference is alienating allies who will be vital in the war on terrorism.
Also, by allowing Mrs. Del Ponte and her staffers to run wild, international law is being undermined.
Finally, America's reputation is at stake: Are we so self-centered that we appeal to the principles of international law and seek international cooperation only when we are in desperate need or do we genuinely care to establish a fair and just community of nations based on protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty?

Grace Vuoto is a professor of European history at Howard University.

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