Failure to prosecute the architects of ethnic cleansing has hindered the U.S. commitment to international law, say members of Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater East Bay. And the only way for the United States to recoup its position of moral leadership, they say, is to expedite the arrests of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
The JCRC recently sent a letter to President Bill Clinton and members of Congress, urging the United States and NATO to act on warrants issued by the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague for the arrest of those who led ethnic cleansing efforts against Muslims in Serbian-held Bosnia.
"We urge you to communicate forcefully to your administration that these arrests must be made, and made quickly, so that trials can proceed," the letter reads. "Our country's credibility, as well as its ideals, are on the line."
Pointing out that the War Crimes Tribunal was established as a result of the post-World War II Nuremberg trials, Gary Sirbu, head of the JCRC's Bosnia task force, said the United States is obligated to take action.
"Our country took direct responsibility for both the enforcement of peace and the enforcement of international law through the tribunal," said Sirbu, who is also a member of the JCRC executive committee.
"Part of the commitment we made was that the judgments of the tribunal would be enforced by the military forces in Bosnia."
Although Karadzic and Mladic were indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal, both NATO and the United States refuse to order troops to arrest them. Both entities fear such a move would refuel strife in the region.
As reported in an article that ran May 22 in The New York Times, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic warned Washington officials that Serbian-held Bosnia "could blow up" if already-indicted war criminals were arrested.
JCRC executive director Rabbi Allen Bennett acknowledges that the Balkans are a powder keg. If Karadzic and Mladic are arrested, "larger military considerations could ignite physical contact." Nonetheless, he said, the United States has made a commitment "to enforce the peace."
The United States "publicly made a commitment to bring these people to justice. It's our problem as a planet when they fail to live up to it."
Rabbi Steven Chester, JCRC chair and spiritual leader of Oakland's Temple Sinai, added that Jews have a religious as well as humanitarian obligation to speak out on the issue of prosecuting war criminals.
The situation "is reminiscent of World War II, when countries didn't take action" against the Nazis until it was essentially too late, he said. Also, "our obligations as Jews toward issues bordering on genocide and war crimes transcend government boundaries.
"We answer to a higher moral and ethical force than the flag under which we live. As Jews, with our historical experience and with what we've been taught, we're obligated to respond."
Sirbu agreed. "The international community decided that mass extermination and slaughter, no matter how it occurred, would receive appropriate punishment," he said. "However, when the Cambodians experienced mass slaughter there was no international force to bring the slaughterers to justice. When the Armenians died at the hands of the Turks there was no effort to bring them to justice. When Jews died at the hands of Nazis no international force came in to stop it until it was all over.
"We can't build Holocaust memorials and look to the past without looking to the future — to our people and others who can fall under the same tyranny."