As well as representing a bloody monument to the bankruptcy of ethnic nationalism, the 1995 genocide at Srebrenica stands, or at least it ought to stand, as a sordid reminder of how the international community should not respond to mass killing. Indeed, the murder 20 years ago this month of 8,372 Muslim men and boys over the course of three days by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic was eminently preventable. Worse, the conduct of several European nations prior to the slaughter—Britain in particular—created a situation propitious to mass murder.
Despite the continued relativism and genocide denial of some—Russia has this week vetoed a UN resolution which would have condemned the Srebrenica massacre as a “crime of genocide”—the wars in the former Yugoslavia had a single identifiable cause: fascistic Serb nationalists who, once the writing was on the wall for communism, threw off the cloak of Marxism-Leninism and replaced materialist certainties with the grim mystique of blood and soil nationalism. For Bosnian Serb leaders the purpose of the war was straightforward: to ensure that Serbs and only Serbs lived in Serb-occupied territory. The humanitarian disaster which culminated in the Srebrenica massacre was not, as Cambridge scholar Brendan Simms puts it, “the by-product of war or civil breakdown. Rather, ethnic cleansing was the purpose of the war.”
As such there was no moral equivalence between the Bosnian government and rampaging Serb nationalists, who precipitated the breakup of Yugoslavia by using the apparatus of Marshall Tito’s old communist state to push their own brand of nationalistic racism—as a result encouraging Croats, Bosniaks, and Slovenians to seek independence. Nor were Bosniaks killed at Srebrenica, as a number of revisionist “historians” still grotesquely claim, because they were guilty of “provoking” the Serbs (a bit like the claim that rape victims “provoke” their attackers). For the first time in Europe since the World War II, men and boys were rounded up and killed on an industrial scale simply because of their ethnicity. While Bosniak menfolk were slaughtered, concentration camps were established for the rape of young girls and women and villages were reduced to embers. In classifying the events at Srebrenica as an act of genocide, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia described the events unequivocally:
“They [members of the Bosnian Serb army] stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity.”
Two decades later and what rankles most apart from the killing itself is the fact that the Bosnian Serbs were given the green light for their brutal onslaught by the cynicism of Western—largely British—politicians. A one-sided arms embargo on the region, imposed by the European Community and its member states in 1991, ostensibly to prevent escalation of the bourgeoning conflict but in practice entrenching the military advantage of the Serbs (who controlled the fourth largest army in Europe) remained in place until near the end of the war because the British government of Prime Minister John Major sabotaged all attempts to lift it. Major’s government justified the embargo by sticking steadfastly to the filthy lie of moral equivalence, hiding in the language of “warring sides” and “complexity” where all sides were equally guilty and nothing could be done. “We should remember,” Major’s Secretary of Defence Malcolm Rifkind told parliament, “that the Serbs in Bosnia are not uniquely guilty.”
When British diplomats could no longer halt the imposition of a NATO no-fly zone to protect Bosniak civilians, the British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, who former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said would “make Neville Chamberlin look like a warmonger,” sank deeper into the moral sewer by trying to obstruct its implementation. As the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Poland, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, observed in 1993: “Any time there was a likelihood of effective action, a particular western statesman [Hurd] intervened to prevent it.”
Britain wasn’t going to help because, as Hurd put it in a gruesome parody of Thatcher’s domestic mantra (though to her credit she supported lifting the embargo and hitting the Serbs), there was “no such thing as the international community.” Once news of the bloodbath at Srebrenica began to leak out via the news media, the British state switched overnight from obstinate block on humanitarian action to revisionist historian. According to the journalist John Sweeny, “the British Ministry of Defence went on the offensive working to deny and play down evidence of the massacre.”
The besieged Bosniaks got little help from the United Nations, either. The genocide occurred in one of the UN’s so-called “safe havens,” with 400 lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers deployed to protect Bosnian Muslims. Yet when Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic reached the town, Dutch forces capitulated immediately. Worse, in an echo of Dutch wartime collaboration—the Netherlands saw one of the highest levels of collaboration of any Nazi-occupied country during the Holocaust—Dutch peacekeepers denied Bosniak fighters the return of weapons they had surrendered, forced them out of a UN military base in the town and handed them over to Bosnian Serb troops. The Dutch had apparently received “assurances” from the would-be murderers. The soothing peace talk had come from General Mladic, who three days earlier had amicably dined on suckling pig with the commander of the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia (UNPROFOR), General Bernard Janvier.
None of this should have come as a surprise, perhaps, considering the rot at the UN went to the very top. Sounding more like a resentful humanities student than the leader of an international organization, UN General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali had previously dismissed the conflict in Bosnia as a “white man’s war.” Boutros-Ghali had even considered it appropriate to use a visit to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in 1994 to lecture locals on the plight of black Africans—the insinuation being that, dying with full stomachs unlike the African brethren, Bosniaks should think themselves lucky and not have the cheek to ask for outside help.
After Srebrenica British foot-dragging ceased to matter. In August 1995, with thousands of Bosniaks already dead, NATO finally launched Operation Deliberate Force, the massive bombing of Bosnian Serb targets which forced the latter to the negotiating table for the Dayton peace agreement, reached in November 1995. Yet by any measure decisive military intervention had come altogether too late (the British had made sure of that) and could not bring back life to the bullet-riddled bodies tossed in unmarked graves; nor assuage the pain of grieving relatives.
The horror at Srebrenica has parallels with the carnage in Syria today. As with Bashar al-Assad’s war on his “own” people, over Bosnia foreign policy realists—concerned more with the supposed “balance of power” than with living and breathing human beings—linked arms with resentful anti-colonialists and told the victims of mass murder that because the West could not do everything it was better if it did nothing. While Bosnia descended into hell, its own government turned to Islamic countries for practical assistance and radicalized paramilitaries duly swept in, allowing isolationist onlookers in Britain and America to slander the Bosniaks as “extremists” and mince superciliously about both sides being “as bad as each other.” Sound familiar?
A few years before the tragedy at Srebrenica a ludicrous “end of history” had been declared and the realist right and the pacifist left got the world that both wanted. The Cold War had come to an end and, while Western nations cut back on military spending, the age of intervention appeared to be over. Yet history failed to stick to the script and the corpses carried on piling up—in Rwanda, in Iraq, in Somalia and in Bosnia—regardless of whether or not the West had a “dog in that fight,” as George H. W. Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, haughtily put it.
Twenty years later and ill-advised hubris of the interventionists in places like Iraq has certainly tainted the reputation of the “something must be done” crowd. Yet the 20th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica should demonstrate that the world rarely looks back kindly on those who stand uselessly on the sidelines while innocents are put to the sword. “Bosnia,” as one observer noted as Douglas Hurd squirmed uselessly in a session of parliament at the height of the Balkan wars, “will be on Douglas Hurd’s tombstone.”
There is a good chance Syria will be on Barack Obama’s.