On the face of it, Russia’s refusal to let Ms. Mary Robinson, the United Nations’ chief human-rights official, visit sites where atrocities are alleged to have occurred during the Chechen war is a setback for her cause. But appearances are deceiving. Moscow’s readiness to pretend such things did not happen will not make them go away. Russia’s unwillingness to take its international obligations seriously — an attitude shared by other governments — will only trigger more scrutiny in the future.

There have been reports of serious human-rights violations throughout the Chechen conflict. The charges include incidents of rape, looting, summary executions and massacres by soldiers during the war; civilians in so-called filtration camps are alleged to have been tortured and beaten. Ms. Robinson went to investigate the charges, but her efforts were frustrated by the Moscow government, which refused her access to many of the places she wanted to go.

Nonetheless, she concluded on the basis of what she did see that there “has been a serious pattern of human-rights violations” and called for an international probe of abuses in the detention centers. Her findings were supported by a Russian parliamentary report, published earlier this week by the Council of Europe, that said Russian military investigators have checked into more than 300 crimes apparently committed by Russian soldiers in Chechnya.

In response, the Russians trot out the same old arguments. First, they deny any incidents took place. Alternatively, they argue that any such crimes are purely internal affairs that are of no concern to the international community. They are wrong on both counts. Abuses on the scale that are alleged to have occurred in Chechnya are of international concern, especially if their effects spill over into other states.

But they need not spill over to justify international intervention. Governments are no longer free to abuse their citizens as they please. That is the message contained in the NATO intervention in Kosovo, last year. But that very political decision was underpinned by court rulings and the precedents that have been set in recent years.

Among those precedents is the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague that is presently hearing cases from the Yugoslav conflict. The court was founded on the idea that governments and individuals are most definitely accountable for human-rights violations even during wartime. Coincidentally, at the same time as Ms. Robinson was condemning Russian behavior, U.N. peacekeepers arrested the third-ranking Bosnian Serb official and took him to The Hague, where he was charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Mr. Momcilo Krajisnik is a close associate of Mr. Radovan Karadzic, head of the Bosnian Serb forces during the Bosnian conflict and another indicted war criminal. Mr. Krajisnik was charged under a sealed indictment, but his prominence within the Bosnian Serb movement meant that he was virtually certain to have been on the wanted list. The indictment that was unsealed after his arrest listed nine counts, including “extermination, murder, willful killing, persecutions and deportation,” all of which occurred while he was a ranking Serb official. Some 800 killings are involved.

The arrest of Mr. Krajisnik was especially gratifying as it came on the heels of news reports that the No. 2 man on the war crimes list, Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic, was seen enjoying a soccer game in Belgrade last week. Mr. Mladic was rumored to be in Yugoslavia, but his exact whereabouts were unknown. He enjoys the protection of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, another indicted war criminal, but that may not last. Several individuals who could tie the president to war crimes have been killed lately. Mr. Mladic is certainly watching over both shoulders, wondering if he too might become expendable.

In less distinguished company, this state of affairs would be called a falling out among thieves. But it is also an indication of the increasing vulnerability felt by men who once considered themselves untouchable. Even in Russia, authorities have reportedly arrested one soldier and charged him with raping and killing a Chechen woman. Given the hundreds of war crimes that are alleged to have occurred during the conflict, that cannot be allowed to proceed as a mere show trial. Real accountability is required. But the decision to prosecute is proof that governments are accepting — reluctantly, for sure — human-rights standards. That is why Ms. Robinson’s failures are as important as her triumphs.

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