How did Srebrenica become a morality tale?
The West turned a bloody battle in a brutal civil war into a clash between good and evil.
It is 10 years since the internationally brokered Dayton Agreement ended the civil war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the worst of the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia. In the West, the Yugoslav wars have became iconic symbols of both the transformed nature of war and conflict after the end of the Cold War, and of the moral imperative for new forms of Western intervention.
From the early stages of the war in 1992, the Bosnian conflict was reported not as a conflict between two opposing sides, but as a conflict between good and evil, in which the Bosnian Serbs were initiating a campaign of genocide against the Bosnian Muslims. Of all the events in the war, this was symbolised by the fall of the Bosnian Muslim-held town of Srebrenica to Bosnian Serb forces. The events that occurred in Srebrenica in July 1995 are now infamous. The Bosnian Serb army invaded the UN Safe Area of Srebrenica, and murdered 8,000 unarmed men and boys, dumping their bodies in mass graves.
Certainly many Bosnian Muslim soldiers and civilians were killed in Srebrenica. But these killings have come to be seen, not as acts of a bloody civil war, but as acts of evil. Western observers took Srebrenica as proof that, in their eyes, Bosnian Serbs were implementing a campaign of genocide against Bosnian Muslims. In the words of a recent Guardian leader article, Srebrenica is a ‘place of horror that ranks alongside Auschwitz’ (1). The tenth anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica was commemorated recently in a ceremony at the memorial centre in the town. UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, as representative of the European Union (EU), apologised to the Bosnian Muslims and said that Srebrenica was the ‘shame of the international community’. He was echoed by Paddy Ashdown, High Representative to Bosnia and Hercegovina, who described it as ‘our greatest shame’ (2).
Srebrenica remains key to Serbia’s relationship with the European Union (EU). The failure to capture Ratko Mladic, who was overall commander of the Bosnian Serb army, is one of the main issues preventing Serbia from beginning the EU accession process. A spokesman for the Federal Government Office for Serbia and Montenegro Association with the EU said on BBC Radio 5 on 15 June that not a day went by without EU pressure for the capture of Mladic, even from EU sports contacts (3).
Recently, a video has come to light courtesy of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) prosecutor Jeffery Nice, which shows Bosnian Serb paramilitary soldiers executing six unarmed Bosnian Muslim prisoners; they had been driven to the Treskavica mountains, and executed there, in the aftermath of the seizure of Srebrenica. This video footage has been shown widely on Serbian television in order to gain public acceptance for the idea that genocide occurred in Srebrenica, and support for the capture of Mladic. Poster campaigns have also been run in Serbia in order to counter what Paddy Ashdown called the ‘holocaust deniers’ (4).
The representation of the Bosnian war as a campaign of genocide rapidly gained ground after the Guardian showed pictures of two Serbian detention camps, Trnopolje and Omarska (5). The German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel called for the creation of an international court in order to prosecute the Bosnian Serbs for genocide, as did the human rights organisation, Helsinki Watch. The United Nations Human Rights Commission endorsed a resolution drafted by America and Turkey that argued that the Bosnian Muslims were threatened with extinction.
The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy compared the situation in Sarajevo to the Warsaw Ghetto, prompting President François Mitterrand to make a dramatic appearance in the city in June 1992 to show his solidarity. In 1993 the new US President Bill Clinton argued that Bosnia was his highest priority. US secretary of state Warren Christopher argued that the situation in Bosnia was bordering on genocide, and accused the British government of suppressing evidence of genocide. In Britain, the former prime minister Margaret Thatcher argued that Bosnia was the scene of atrocities not witnessed since the Second World War, and high-profile political commentators such as Hugo Young and Martin Jacques explicitly compared the Bosnian Serbs to the Nazis (6).
Srebrenica first came to international attention in the summer of 1993. However, since 1992 the area of Srebrenica had been fought over, being of high strategic value to both Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, who both sought to create contiguous areas under their control. The region had initially been seized by the Bosnian Serb army in 1992, but then was retaken by the Bosnian Muslim army later in the same year. On the Bosnian Muslim side, the area had been under the command of former bodyguard to Slobodan Milosevic, Nasir Oric. Even by the standards of that bitter war, Oric conducted a brutal campaign against Serbian villages in the area. Two journalists reported that they had seen Bosnian Muslim military action that included beheadings (7).
In early 1993 the Bosnian Serbs launched a counter-offensive and captured much of the surrounding area. As the Serbs advanced, and Srebrenica became packed with Muslim refugees, the UN declared the town a UN Safe Area. Mohammed Sacirby, the Bosnian Muslim government’s representative to the UN, called Srebrenica ‘an open concentration camp in which disease, hunger and despair have replaced shells and bullets as the tools of genocide’ (8).
The town remained surrounded by Bosnian Serb troops. According to the UN Security Council resolution that established UN Safe Areas, they should be demilitarised. Srebrenica, however, remained fully armed. This is discussed by both the ICTY, and the 2002 report by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, which was sponsored by the Dutch government to investigate the fall of Srebrenica and the role of Dutch troops stationed there under the UN. This report argues that the Bosnian army (AbiH) ‘followed a deliberate strategy of using limited military actions to tie up a relatively large part of the Bosnian Serbian army (VRS)…. This was also done from the Srebrenica enclave…. They (AbiH) provoked fire by the Bosnian Serbs and then sought cover with a Dutchbat unit (the Dutch Air Battalion sent there by the UN).’ (9)
On 6 July 1995 the Bosnian Serb Army began to advance into the surrounding area after sustained shelling from the town (10). The Dutch report suggests that the Bosnian Serb army had limited intentions, mainly to take some of the surrounding area and to intercept the road to Zepa (11). At this point, and for reasons unknown, all of the Bosnian Muslim military commanders left the town (12). As the Bosnian Serb force of 200 soldiers and five tanks advanced, they encountered little resistance and entered Srebrenica (13). The capture of the town seemed to be the result of a lack of resistance rather then anything premeditated (14).
As the Bosnian Serb army took the town, thousands of the inhabitants fled to the UN base at Potocari. Women and children were evacuated from the town and men of military age were detained. Some men engaged the Serbs in fighting, and a large number of soldiers broke out of the enclave and fought with the Serbian army. There is no doubt that some of the Bosnian Muslim prisoners of war were executed in cold blood.
That murders occurred, however, does not prove genocide. The extent of the massacres has not been fully established; the figure of 8,000 murdered is not proven but an estimate made up from various lists of missing people. To date, the ICTY has identified 2,032 bodies from the 5,000 exhumed (15). While some bodies bear signs of having been killed rather than shot in battle, wounds on many bodies are consistent with battle deaths. Moreover, given that the area had been the scene of heavy fighting since 1992, it is to be expected that there were substantial casualties on both sides, and that many would have been buried in graves where they fell.
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the town, less-reported sources also suggested a more complex picture. It was reported that the Red Cross had received news that up to 2,000 of the missing Bosnian Muslim troops from Srebrenica were in Tuzla, although the families of the soldiers had not yet been informed (16). Other articles cynically suggested that the complete lack of defence of the area suggested that the Bosnian Muslim government had ‘sacrificed’ Srebrenica in order to force the West’s hand.
In the West, it was argued that the fall of Srebrenica represented irrefutable proof of the Bosnian Serbs’ campaign of genocide. Robin Cook, then shadow foreign secretary, argued that it confirmed a programme of genocide (17), and the American old Cold War warrior Zbigniew Brzezinski called the fall of Srebrenica a ‘defining moment’ (18). By the end of July, Radovan Karadjic and General Ratko Mladic were indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity in the newly established ICTY. The US secretary of state Madeleine Albright presented aerial pictures taken by US spy planes of four large areas of newly dug up earth, which she stated contained mass graves.
According to the ICTY, the events that occurred in the fall of Srebrenica were something like scenes from hell. Thousands had apparently been executed and mutilated; children murdered in front of their parents; a grandfather had even been forced to eat the liver of his grandson, all under the eyes of Dutch soldiers (19). The 2002 Dutch report, however, denied that any atrocities had taken place in front of Dutch troops.
General Krstic, the commander of the Drina Corps of the Bosnian Serb army that took Srebrenica, was the first person to be tried and convicted of genocide in the ICTY. Given the supposed extent of and notoriety of the genocide, it might have been assumed that this would be an open and shut case. However, the actual charge wasn’t so straightforward. Krstic has been convicted of the intent of a ‘joint criminal enterprise’ to commit genocide (20).
Joint criminal enterprise is a new category that does not entail proving that the accused had any direct intent to commit, or knowledge of, the crime. At Krstic’s trial it was established that Krstic did not know of any murders that were being committed, and in no way participated. Moreover, the ICTY also accepted that Krstic had personally given orders that Bosnian Muslim civilians were not to be harmed (21). His conviction was based on the grounds that he had participated in a ‘criminal enterprise’, the capture of Srebrenica.
General Krstic’s defence, on appeal, argued that he could not be held responsible for crimes that he was unaware were actually occurring. The ICTY argued that for criminal responsibility to be established it was unnecessary to conclude that the defendant knew what was happening: ‘it was sufficient to show that he was aware that those acts outside the agreed enterprise were a natural and foreseeable consequence of the agreed joint criminal enterprise, and that the accused participated in the enterprise aware of the probability that other crimes may result.’ (22) By this rationale, of course, any participation in war is a criminal enterprise, as in all wars it is fairly certain that crimes such as rape, murder and maltreatment of prisoners of war will be committed.
Furthermore, the actual definition of genocide as employed by the Tribunal is not as might be commonly understood: as the intention to destroy such a substantial part of a group as to affect the entirety. In order to establish genocide the ICTY firstly argued that the Bosnian Serb army had targeted all of the Bosnian Muslim inhabitants of Srebrenica and the surrounding area, some 40,000 people, not just those murdered (23). This leads to a strange situation whereby those who were not murdered contribute to the verdict of genocide.
It then argued that even the numbers of the population under threat did not capture the importance of the Muslim community in Srebrenica, and that the strategic importance of the area and the prominence of the Safe Area internationally rendered the action genocide, as the Bosnian Serbs intended it to be an example to all Bosnian Muslims (24). Moreover, even the fact that the women, children and elderly from Srebrenica were not murdered but transferred to areas controlled by the Bosnian Muslim army does not disprove genocide, but rather proves it (25).
Therefore, Krstic’s trial revealed serious flaws in the presentation of the fall of Srebrenica as an act of genocide. The ICTY was unable to establish that the commander of the army unit that captured Srebrenica had any intention to, or knowledge of, any murders. Furthermore, in order for the murders to be classified as genocide, the ICTY embarked upon a complicated definition of genocide that is not dependent on showing either intent to commit genocide, nor upon the numbers of people actually killed. Thus, under this definition of genocide the murder of some individuals, even soldiers in a combat situation, counts as genocide.
Despite the contortions that the ICTY has had to go through, for Western politicians and political commentators Srebrenica has become an increasingly important symbol of the failure of the West to stop genocide, and consequently of the importance of Western intervention. The 1999 UN report into the events castigated itself for failure in the face of a ‘systemic attempt to terrorise, expel or murder an entire people’ (26).
From Kosovo in 1999 to the Congo in 2005, Srebrenica is held up as conclusive proof that the West is morally obliged to intervene militarily in conflict situations. Jack Straw argued in defence of Western intervention in Macedonia in 2001, on the basis that Srebrenica showed what happened when the West was reluctant to intervene (27). Liberal commentator David Aaronovitch used the same argument to explain his support for military action in Iraq (28). When discussing the killing of 60 Congolese soldiers by UN troops, UN General Patrick Cammaert argued in favour of robust military intervention, because of ‘the lessons of Srebrenica, Somalia and Rwanda’ (29).
There is no evidence to suggest that Srebrenica represents proof of a planned campaign of genocide. Rather, the murders there should be understood in the context of a complicated civil war, which occurred as three groups fought to gain control of parts of Bosnia. The abstraction of the event from the context of a bitter and brutal war is representative of the simplification of the entire Yugoslav conflict.
Tara McCormack is a PhD student in international relations at the University of Westminster in London.
(1) ‘Srebrenica: The Scar of Europe’, Guardian, 15 July 2005
(2) Hawton, Nick (2005), Europe faces up to its shame as Srebrenica buries dead-at last, The Times, 12 July 2005
(3) Interview with the Federal Government Office for Serbia and Montenegro Association with the EU, Today, BBC Radio 4, 15th June 2005
(4) Interview with Paddy Ashdown from the Srebrenica memorial ceremony, Today, BBC Radio 4, 11 July 2005
(5) ‘Shame of Camp Omarska’, Ed Vulliamy, Guardian, 7 August 1992
(6) ‘When leadership fails in the face of Hitlerism’, Hugo Young Guardian, April 15th 1993; ‘Timely clarion call puts the Balkans on moral high ground’, Martin Jacques Sunday Times, April 1993
(7) ‘Fearsome Muslim warlord eludes Bosnian Serb forces’, Bill Schiller, Toronto Star, 16 July 1995; ‘Weapons, Cash and Chaos Lend Clout to Srebrenica’s Tough Guy’, John Pomfret, Washington Post, 16 February 1994
(8) ‘Bosnia “safe areas’ to get more troops’, Guardian, 5 June 1993
(9) Point 5 from the Epilogue. This version taken from the Summary for the Press, 2002 Report of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. Available on the Srebrenica - a ‘safe’ area website. Also see paragraphs 21-25 of the Judgement of the Trial Chamber 1 of the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991, Prosecutor v Radislav Krstic, 2 August 2001
(10) ‘Muslim soldiers “failed to defend town from Serbs”’, Michael Evans, The Times, 14 July 1995
(11) Point 5 from the Epilogue, this version taken from the Summary for the Press, 2002 Report of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation
(12) ‘Muslim soldiers “failed to defend town from Serbs”’, Michael Evans, The Times, 14 July 1995
(13) ‘Muslim soldiers “failed to defend town from Serbs”’, Michael Evans, The Times, 14 July 1995
(14) Point 5 from the Epilogue, this version taken from the Summary for the Press, 2002 Report of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation; ‘Muslim soldiers “failed to defend town from Serbs”’, Michael Evans, The Times, 14 July 1995
(15) ‘Europe faces up to its shame as Srebrenica buries dead-at last’, Nick Hawton, The Times, 12 July 2005
(16) ‘“Missing” enclave troops found’, Michael Evans, The Times, 2 August 1995
(17) ‘Time for a little truth’, Robin Cook, Guardian, 19 July 1995
(18) Zbigniew Brzezinski, Independent, 21 July 1995
(19) ‘An anniversary of shame and failure’, Independent, 11 July 1996
(20) Paragraph 80, Judgement of the Appeals Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991, Prosecutor v Radislav Krstic, 19 April 2004. All documents available from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia website
(21) Paragraph 132, Judgement of the Appeals Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991, Prosecutor v Radislav Krstic, 19 April 2004
(22) paragraph 150, Judgement of the Appeals Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991, Prosecutor v Radislav Krstic, 19 April 2004
(23) paragraph 15, Judgement of the Appeals Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991, Prosecutor v Radislav Krstic, 19 April 2004
(24) paragraph 15, 16, 17, Judgement of the Appeals Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991, Prosecutor v Radislav Krstic, 19 April 2004
(25) paragraph 30 - 31Judgement of the Appeals Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia Since 1991, Prosecutor v Radislav Krstic, 19 April 2004
(26) ‘UN admits it never recognised the extent of Serb evil in Bosnia’, Independent, 17 November 1999
(27) ‘A death in defence of a genuine British cause’, Jack Straw, The Times, 29 August 2001
(28) ‘Why the left must tackle the crimes of Saddam: with or without a second UN resolution I will not oppose action against Iraq’, David Aaronovich, Observer, 2 February 2003
(29) ‘UN Troops take fight to Congo’s brutal militiamen’, Daily Telegraph, 7 March 2005