July 9, 2001
UN War Crimes Tribunal Cannot Create Peace
Former Yugoslav President Milosevic appeared last week before the UN war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands, despite his insistence that the court has no authority to prosecute him. UN leaders, particularly those from NATO aligned countries, have been eager to promote his arrest and pending trial as a victory for international peace. The problem, however, is that longstanding ethnic feuds in the region (both the former Yugoslavia and northern Greece) have not been resolved. The west can congratulate itself that Milosevic has been removed from power, but it cannot guarantee that the vacuum will not be filled by another equally bloodthirsty leader.
UN-initiated wars, even when followed by UN war crimes trials, cannot simply create peace in troubled nations. Time and time again, we have witnessed the folly of intervening in the domestic conflicts of sovereign countries. The US did so in Korea and Vietnam with disastrous results, and now the UN has supplanted the US as the world's policeman (although largely with US tax dollars). Kosovo undoubtedly will not be the last example of this pattern of UN "peacekeeping," where the UN chooses sides in a domestic war, intensifies the conflict, engineers a winner, and puts the loser on trial. Yet history demonstrates that respecting the sovereignty of individual nations does far more to promote peace than military intervention, even when such intervention is undertaken for humanitarian reasons. Nations have every right to criticize and denounce foreign governments, but they have no right to initiate aggression against such governments simply because they muster up a gang of allies who share their view. The UN, as a collective body, cannot make moral acts of aggression that clearly would be immoral if initiated by a single nation.
We should recognize that the Yugoslav people themselves are far more ambivalent about the Milosevic trial. In fact, the CNN bureau chief in Belgrade recently characterized the local reaction as mixed, stating that most Serbs would have preferred to see Milosevic tried in a Serbian court, for crimes such as embezzlement and corruption against the Serb people. He also stated that many Serbian people see themselves as victims of NATO and UN aggression, and that most feel the tribunal in the Hague is biased against Serbs. In fact, he states that most feel the recent pledge of money from western nations for rebuilding was simply a direct pay-off for Milosevic's extradition. So while the UN loves to congratulate itself as the world's peacemaker, it rarely is viewed that way by the citizens it claims to have rescued from their own corrupt leaders. Most people understandably resent having foreign armies invade their countries to determine the outcome of disputes within their own borders. We cannot expect nations defeated by UN armies to simply accept the subsequent verdicts rendered against them in UN war crimes courts.
We also should not deceive ourselves that the rest of the world necessarily will accept UN-ordained outcomes in future conflicts. The Chinese reportedly have criticized the Milosevic trial as evidence of western desire to assert hegemonic power and interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries. One high-ranking Chinese leader flatly accused "hostile foreign powers" of using the pretext of international humanitarianism to interfere in domestic Chinese matters. The UN is a highly political body, and it is naive to believe that it does not favor certain national interests over others. Violent conflicts inevitably will arise when some nations refuse to accept the UN role as the arbiter of the world's geo-political conflicts.