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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ensuring Worldwide Justice

The recent conviction of 25 defendants for human rights violations in the separatist Indonesian province of Aceh illustrates a difficult issue: Should nations handle their own investigations of human rights violations, or should such matters be turned over to international tribunals?

A UN panel formed to investigate earlier and more serious allegations against Indonesia f of violence in East Timor f recommended the Security Council establish an international war crimes tribunal, such as those existing in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, to try those responsible. By contrast, an Indonesian human rights panel recommended to the country's attorney general that top military leaders be tried in Indonesian courts.

There's no disputing that atrocities took place in East Timor, though the specifics remain subject to further investigation, nor that someone should be held accountable. But the remaining question f who should do the accounting, and with what result? f opens a critical debate in which the Indonesian answer could become an important precedent. This isn't just a legal process issue; it goes to the heart of both democratic theory and the sovereign legitimacy that flows from it.

Those favoring international tribunals argue that war crimes or "crimes against humanity" should be tried either in special courts created by the Security Council or by the new International Criminal Court, if it ever comes into existence. They have little faith in national courts, or they prefer such measures as extraditing an Augusto Pinochet to Spain rather than allowing him to face Chilean justice.

Many have a larger agenda: to reduce the independent authority of nation-states across the board, and to bend national preferences to international rules and requirements. In recent years, this side of the debate has claimed the moral high ground, implying that its critics are little more than accomplices to grave human rights abuses.

But the opposite side appears to be strengthening. Its approach is to believe that nations, including newly emerging democracies, must confront the realities of their histories. They must set the moral, political and legal standards by which they wish to be judged, implement those standards in viable judicial codes and institutions, then live with the consequences of their decisions. This is one way in which fledgling democracies grow to maturity.

To take critical decisions out of their hands is to deny them the chance for historical responsibility. Their decisions might not be those the self-assured moralists would make, but that is inherent in the concept of popular sovereignty and autonomy. Anyone is free to offer advice to Indonesia, but it is the country's democratic responsibility to make its own decisions that would be at risk if the decisions were internationalized.

Moreover, criminal prosecution is not always and everywhere the path to accountability. South Africa created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to establish the historical record of apartheid crimes as fully as possible, then move ahead. Eastern and Central European countries chose "amnesia" for many who informed during the Communist period, rather than automatic retribution. (Some worry President Wahid has already foreshadowed this approach by saying he could "forgive" Wiranto, if the general were convicted.)

Such decisions may be correct or incorrect, but each nation must make its moral choices and live with the consequences. This is a familiar pattern in our individual lives and one that all nations, especially those seeking democracy, should be encouraged to adopt.

To abort Indonesia's assumption of responsibility for its citizens' actions would be not just elitist and paternalistic but a violation of the basic assumptions of democratic government. Indonesia should be given the breathing space it needs to confront what happened in East Timor f as it seems to be doing for Aceh f and be spared neither the pain of so doing nor the lesson of living with whatever it decides.

John R. Bolton, senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, was an assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.