Eighty-six-year-old Andrija Artukovic, known during World War II as "the Butcher of the Balkans," went home to Yugoslavia last week to face charges of mass murder. The courts in Croatia will try him for ordering the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs and gypsies during the time he served in the puppet government installed by the Nazis. He had entered the United States in 1948 on a visitor's visa using an alias, and for more than 30 years the U.S. government has been trying to deport him. It was Yugoslavia's request for his extradition that brought matters to a head. Last year a federal magistrate ordered that he be returned for trial and appellate courts upheld that decision.

The extradition treaty between the United States and Yugoslavia contains a political exclusion clause, which is not uncommon in agreements of this kind. These clauses are designed to protect people from being returned to countries where they would be tried for political offenses, as opposed to the usual crimes such as murder, fraud or bank robbery. The problem comes when magistrates and courts are called upon to define with precision exactly what a political offense is. Mr. Artukovic claimed that the heinous crimes with which he is charged, involving the murder of 400,000 people, were political in nature, but the federal courts didn't buy that. Other courts, however, have held that an assortment of violent crimes committed in connection with civil strife in Northern Ireland are political and therefore not subject to extradition. In one case, a judge even refused to return to Great Britain an escaped prisoner who had been convicted of murdering a soldier. Does this make any sense, particularly when the request for extradition comes from a country with a criminal justice system quite similar to our own?

Congress has spent years trying to codify the extradition law and create guidelines on political offense matters for the courts. But no new laws have been enacted. Meanwhile, the United States and Great Britain have agreed to amend the treaty between the two so as to make the political offense exception unavailable in cases involving vholence, hijacking, sabotage, hostage-taking and certain cases involving firearms and explosives. These amendments are particularly necessary now in light of the violence in Northern Ireland, which has included the murder of political figures and even an attempt on the life of Prime Minister Thatcher. Action on the treaty was postponed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year, but it should be taken up again, and ratified without any more delay.