Jewish coalition renews pleas for Bosnian war criminals arrest

WASHINGTON — 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 demand the arrest of Bosnian war criminals.

The two events could not have been more different.

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

This week, temperatures 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 urging justice and talking of 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," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which co-sponsored the 1992 rally.

"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 Europe,

Jewish activists have joined the latest campaign, initiated by the Coalition for International Justice. Founded two years ago, when the Dayton peace accords 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."

The coalition hopes to impress upon the administration the strong support for arresting the war criminals, using force if needed.

If American allies do not complete the task of arresting indicted war criminals, the group said, "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. As the groups gathered for a news conference near the Holocaust museum, the president spoke 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," Clinton said.

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 provision 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 pushed 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?"