The Evening Standard

15 June 1999

Catching the War Criminals will be a Long Game

Gerald Segal

Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies



As NATO troops fan out across Kosovo, it has not taken them long to find stomach-churning evidence of mass graves and major war crimes. So will NATO troops quickly snatch the war criminals still on the loose in a chaotic Kosovo?

As appealing as the idea may be, and despite the indictment of President Milosevic of Serbia as a war criminal, NATO troops are unlikely to be able to quickly satisfy the conscience of humanity with spectacular arrests by special forces. The reasons for caution are in part legal and political, but primarily military.

Arresting war criminals is certainly a legally justifiable process under the terms of the Geneva Conventions on war crimes and the operation of the International Court in the Hague. On 7 June NATO troops (primarily British) grabbed Dragan Kulundzja in Bosnia based on an indictment from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague for crimes committed against Croats and Muslims during the Bosnia war. In January a French attempt to grab Dragan Gagovic ended in the death of the suspect while evading arrest.

But in the case of Kosovo, arrest warrants have not been issued and so it would be illegal for NATO troops to snatch anyone not already sought for crimes elsewhere. That is why lawyers and investigators from the Tribunal have been interviewing witnesses in the refugee camps for weeks and why on 12 June the UN Secretary General urgently asked all countries to send at least 300 forensic experts to Kosovo. The American FBI has been quick off the mark in promising specialists as everyone knows it is vital to gather evidence quickly, especially before the refugees flood back. In these early days the KLA will be of help in locating evidence but the investigators will also want to see how they can "encourage" disaffected Serbs, even in the armed forces, to provide (even sell) their vital evidence. But without evidence, NATO cannot legally snatch the mass murderers.

There are also political reasons why the special forces may not be used so quickly. NATO forces already have their hands full with stray snipers and disgruntled Serbs, not to mention obstructive Russians. If NATO is to get the refugees back quickly—the primary objective of the mission—they need a calm environment. Grabbing war criminals would stir resentment and might give some Serb units cause to complain that the terms of the military agreement governing their withdrawal are being violated.

But the most pragmatic reasons for leaving the war criminals to a little later come from the armed forces. It is no secret that most military professionals do not like having to devote scarce resources to the often risky attempt to arrest war criminals. The British are perhaps the relative exception to the rule, and certainly in the Bosnia operation the French and the Americans were distinctly reluctant to make the effort. Few other countries have the skilled troops to do the job.

Snatching war criminals is a specialised buisness. It depends foremost on the highest quality intelligence gathered over many months of covert operations. It requires highly trained troops such as the SAS or the US Seals or Green Berets. Many operations fail because operational techniques are loose (such as the cavalier use of mobile phones). Even the Americans admit that the British are the best at such covert operations, but in part they are so successful because they are so prudent and take such meticulous care in preparing each operation.

Any grab for war criminals in Kosovo would be best done with many simultaneous operations: it is a little like major battles in the Godfather, strikes need to be intense and extensive. But NATO troops can be excused for having other things on their minds. An intelligence system that failed to pick up the freelance Russian operation and has a whole new zone of operation to learn in detail, will be reluctant to commit many intelligence assets to seizing war criminals. The professionals in the SAS might well be itching for some glory in this war, but being professionals, they will know that their reputation depends on their ability to prepare meticulously for each operation.

The British will also know that although their own intelligence is good, they still rely on crucial help from the Americans. Part of the reason for caution in arresting war criminals in Bosnia has been a deep-rooted aversion on the part of the American military to commit many military resources to operations that it sees as falling more in the civil than the military sphere. For the Americans this is a task for the FBI not the armed forces.

Kosovo may be different for the Americans in part because President Clinton sold the war to his people on the basis of human rights being in the US national interest. Tony Blair certainly has a strong interest in seeing war criminals brought to book as he was the torchbearer for the argument that civilised people had to fight for the right to defend human rights. But a far-sighted leader will understand that the war against criminals is often a long game played with subtlety and subterfuge. Better to wait until the mass murderers grow complacent and their friends can be enticed into turning them in. The worst of the killers such as the infamous "Arkan" (wanted for crimes since 1992, and married to one of Serbia’s hottest pop stars) have no doubt already taken flight. While it would be good to grab the minnows, it is the trial of the big fish that sends out the loudest long term message that crime does not pay.

Precisely because the British and American leaders operate in democracies, they have to make sure they do not break the rules and harm the larger military operation for the sake of quick proof that this was in fact a Just War. Both leaders would be correctly criticised if their zeal ended up ensuring failure of cases at the International Criminal Tribunal and a weakening of the effort to get the refugees back quickly and safely.