Lessons of the Srebrenica Genocide
Thursday, Aug. 02, 2001 By TONY KARON
Krstic was convicted of genocide for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre
The genocide conviction of the Serb general responsible for the Srebrenica atrocity in 1995 is cause for satisfaction, but not closure, because many of those who share culpability were not in the dock at the Hague War Crimes Tribunal. Those include not only the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs’ murderous campaign but also the international community that assembled the victims on the promise of protection, and then stepped aside and allowed a five-day slaughter they had the means of stopping.
General Radislav Krstic was sentenced Thursday to 46 years in prison for his role as second-in-command of the Bosnian Serb forces that massacred almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys in a town that had been declared a safe haven under U.N. protection. His superiors, General Ratko Mladic and Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic remain at large, probably somewhere in the Bosnian Serb republic. But the deportation of Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague means that Serbia-proper is no longer a safe haven for Karadzic and Mladic, and they will, therefore, sooner or later, be apprehended by NATO troops and brought to the Hague to face the same charges as Krstic.
Shameful U.N. performance
But not even the convictions of Karadzic or Mladic would fully address the acts and omissions that caused the Srebrenica massacre. The U.N. contingent's shameful performance there may actually have even facilitated it. U.N. forces had created a “safe haven” in the town, where they promised protection to refugees from the Serb offensive in northern Bosnia. But when the 600 lightly-armed Dutch peacekeepers came under attack from the Serb forces, they began to retreat. The Bosnian Muslim fighters who'd surrendered their weapons to the U.N. as a condition for entering the safe haven asked for them back, hoping that they could at least slow the Serb advance on a town jam-packed with refugees. Their request was denied.
The U.N. command dithered over calling air strikes, and when a limited air strike occurred two days after the initial attack, the Serbs responded by threatening to kill 30 Dutch troops they'd captured. That was the end of the air strikes, and the U.N. now found itself cooperating with General Mladic by sending in buses to remove women and children from the area — the Serbs had begun assembling Muslim men aged 12 to 77 for interrogation, and the mass executions began the next day — the same day as the peacekeepers handed over some 5,000 Muslims who'd been sheltering at the Dutch base at Potocari, in exchange for the release of 14 peacekeeping troops. The Dutch left the following day, after negotiating their way out — and leaving behind their weapons as part of the deal.
Not cowardice, but paralysis
There is no question that the international community failed the victims of Srebrenica. They'd gone in vowing to protect civilians, and yet when faced with opposition they simply cut and ran. It was not cowardice on the part of the commanders or the men in the field — they were under strict orders from their political superiors, all the way to the top, to avoid getting into a fight. It is hard to blame individuals for a series of political decisions in different capitals that collectively amounted to a feeble paralysis in the face of Bosnian Serb aggression. And so, the same United Nations that set up the court that convicted Krstic also bears a measure of collective responsibility for the tragedy at Srebrenica.
Reflecting on Western culpability in the events at Srebrenica is not merely an historical exercise. Peacekeeping troops are still deployed throughout the Balkans, for the most part under the sturdier command of NATO rather than the paralytic U.N. bureaucracy. Even then, their record of standing up to racist thuggery is somewhat mixed. NATO showed great resolve in forcing the Serbs to accept the Dayton accord on Bosnia and later in getting them out of Kosovo, but the alliance has proved rather wimpish when its peacekeeping troops are confronted by continued ethnic cleansing (as in Kosovo) or new separatist insurgencies (as in the Presevo Valley and Macedonia). The current events in Macedonia are a reminder that the Balkan wars are far from over — and that the Srebrenica tragedy carries important lessons for the here and now.