Why Srebrenica?

I am planning to shift gears this week and examine the responsibility borne by the United States and other western governments for Srebrenica. While it is clear that primary responsibility for the worst massacre in Europe since World War II lies with the perpetrators, the international community must also bear a share of the blame through its inaction and fecklessness in declaring a "safe area" it was unable -- or unwilling -- to protect.

Before I get into that subject, however, I would like to answer a question raised by some readers. Why Srebrenica? Why pay so much attention to a tragedy in an obscure corner of the Balkans that took place nearly seventeen years ago? After all, Srebrenica was hardly the only war crime committed during the terrible, five year war in the former Yugoslavia. An exclusive focus on Srebrenica also obscures atrocities committed by the Croats and the Muslims, making it appear that the Serbs were the only guilty party.

 It is true that representatives of other ethnic groups carried out "crimes against humanity." The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal found the Croatian general, Ante Gotovina, guilty of "wanton destruction," the purpose of which was "the permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region in Croatia by force." It is worth noting that 580,000 Serbs lived in Croatia prior to 1991, mainly in Krajina. That figure is down to around 200,000 today. The expulsion of Serbs from the Krajina region was one of the most successful examples of "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia. Gotovina and other Croatian generals who carried out this campaign are still considered heroes by many Croats.

Muslims also committed war crimes, albeit fewer in number than the other ethnic groups, reflecting their position as the weakest of the three parties. Two senior Bosnian army officers were found guilty of failing to take reasonable measures to prevent plundering and cruel treatment of civilians in central Bosnia. The Muslim warlord, Naser Oric, was eventually acquitted of murder and "wanton destruction" in Serbian villages around Srebrenica-but only because it was difficult to prove that he had exercised effective control over subordinates who had actually committed the crimes.

And then there are all the other crimes committed by forces under the command of Ratko Mladic: murders of prisoners, the shelling of civilian areas of Sarajevo, concentration camps, the raping of women, the ethnic cleansing of large swathes of Bosnia at the beginning of the war. If everything that happened in Srebrenica had already happened beforehand, what is it that makes Srebrenica unique?

It is partly a question of scale. The cold-blooded murder of around 7,000 prisoners was unprecedented, even by Bosnian standards. A series of trials in The Hague has established that it required the machinery of the Bosnian Serb state, and army, to kill so many people. Most of these men and boys were killed in a period of just three days after the fall of Srebrenica. Out of the 30,000 missing people in Bosnia, one in four came from Srebrenica.

And then there is the continuing cover-up, beginning with the re-excavation of mass graves and scattering of victims' remains in dozens of different secondary gravesites. To this day, the Bosnian Serb authorities are funding an effort to deny the basic facts of Srebrenica, as evidenced by comments to this blog from members of a Republika Srpska-funded organization calling itself the Srebrenica Historical Project.

But the Srebrenica tragedy also commands our attention because it took place under the noses of a United Nations peacekeeping force dispatched to create a "safe area." Srebrenica has become a symbol of the failure of international humanitarian intervention in the years immediately following the end of the Cold War, not in some remote corner of Africa, but within an hour flying time from major European capitals.

The author of the 1999 United Nations report on Srebrenica, David Harland, put it this way in a PBS interview.

[Srebrenica has] taken on a significance of its own, and I think that it's crying out for an explanation. Not just of what the Serbs did in Srebrenica and to the people of Srebrenica, but also what the international community did or didn't do and what it could have done...I think that Srebrenica has become of those iconic tragedies, which is remembered even when the rest of the conflict is largely forgotten.

It is this aspect -- the international aspect -- of the Srebrenica tragedy that I want to explore next.

ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

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