The Srebrenica Precedent


This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, in which eight thousand people were killed in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. The mass killing was the single deadliest event of the Bosnian War, and the most recognized atrocity of the post–Cold War era.

Its significance cannot be overstated: the massacre triggered a NATO bombing campaign that is widely credited with ending the Bosnian War and giving NATO a new lease on life after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ever since, the Srebrenica precedent has been invoked to justify military interventions around the globe.

In 2005, Christopher Hitchens defended the US decision to invade Iraq with an article entitled “From Srebrenica to Baghdad.” In 2011, when Guardian columnist Peter Preston advocated military intervention in Libya, his article began with the words: “Remember Srebrenica?” In 2012, a call in CNN for Western intervention in Syria appeared under the title “Syria, Sarajevo, and Srebrenica.” And a 2014 article on ISIS advances in Syria warned of a possible “New Srebrenica,” with the implication that Western military action was needed to prevent this calamity.

When supporters of military intervention cite Srebrenica, it’s often to insist on the need to dispense with diplomacy and use decisive military force in response to humanitarian emergencies. As a 2006 New Republic editorial succinctly argued, “In the response to most foreign policy crises, the use of military force is properly viewed as a last resort. In the response to genocide, the use of military force is properly viewed as a first resort.” Given the broad way that genocide is now defined, this is a call for interventions without limit.

A closer examination of Srebrenica and the Bosnian War demonstrates that much of the conventional wisdom about the massacre is mistaken. Contrary to popular belief, the NATO interventions in Bosnia actually worsened the atrocities they were supposed to resolve. And while abundant evidence indicates that diplomacy could have prevented the Bosnian War and thus prevented the Srebrenica massacre, this option was blocked by pro-interventionist forces in the United States.

In short, the primary lesson that the foreign policy establishment has learned — that more US military intervention is better — is entirely wrong.

What Happened in Srebrenica

The massacre took place near the end of the 1992–95 Bosnian War, which flared up after the Yugoslav federation’s dissolution in the early 1990s. One of the successor states, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was composed of three main ethnic groups: Bosnian Muslims (44 percent), Serbs (31 percent), and Croats (17 percent). In 1990 the Muslims’ political party won the republic’s first election and a Muslim, Alija Izetbegović, became the president. Izetbegović established a political alliance between the Muslim and Croat groups, and this alliance formed the basis of the new state.

Ethnic Serbs feared that Muslim-Croat dominance in Bosnia would undermine their interests, and these fears set the stage for war. When Bosnia officially became independent in April 1992, the Serbs seceded from Bosnia, taking their superior weapons with them, and began forming militias. In a bid to expand their landholdings, Serb forces engaged in mass ethnic cleansing, using killings, rapes, and other crimes to drive out members of competing ethnic groups, especially Muslims.

The Serb military attacked Srebrenica in 1992, but Bosnian government forces and (later) a small United Nations (UN) peacekeeping contingent were protecting the mainly Muslim inhabitants. In July 1995 Serb forces again assaulted Srebrenica. In the interim, the Muslims had removed the main body of their defense forces, and encountering little resistance, Serb forces easily overran the city.

The horrific events that followed are well documented: Serb militias expelled the town’s women and children and rounded up all military-age males, executing some eight thousand people, mostly males over the age of sixteen, over several days.

The Bosnian War entailed numerous massacres and atrocities (most of which were committed by Serb forces), but none approached the scale of Srebrenica — surely the largest mass killing in Europe since the 1940s. According to an investigation of Srebrenica authorized by the Dutch government, “Muslims were slaughtered like beasts.”

The killings in Srebrenica were largely orchestrated by Bosnian Serb military commanders, notably Gens. Radislav Krstić and Ratko Mladić, as well as the Serbs’ political leader, Radovan Karadžić, all of whom have either been convicted or are currently being tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague. Blood is also on the hands of the Republic of Serbia and its president, Slobodan Milošević, which supported the Bosnian Serb militias throughout the war. (The battalion of UN peacekeepers took no action to defend the town, but these lightly armed peacekeepers could not have repelled the much larger Serb forces.)

While Serb soldiers are most to blame for the massacre, the Bosnian government also contributed to the tragedy. According to Swedish diplomat Carl Bildt, who served as the European Union mediator during the Bosnian War, Bosnian officials deliberately allowed Srebrenica to fall to the Serb military. In his memoirs, Bildt notes that Bosnian government forces assigned to protect Srebrenica were “not putting up any resistance. Later it was revealed that they had been ordered by the Sarajevo commanders not to defend Srebrenica.”

Bildt’s account is supported by military correspondent Tim Ripley, who provides copious evidence that the Bosnian government ceded the town to Serb forces, possibly as part of the Izetbegović government’s broader strategy to expose civilians to Serb attacks and garner sympathetic intervention.

Retrospective efforts to whitewash the actions of the Bosnian government, and Izetbegović in particular, have played an important role in establishing the Srebrenica massacre as a morally simple affair, with villains and heroes, thus retroactively justifying US military involvement in Bosnia. Equally important, widespread mischaracterizations of the massacre have served to portray interventions in Bosnia and elsewhere as acts of benevolence.

The Redefinition of Genocide

The Srebrenica massacre was surely a horrific act, but did it constitute genocide? In a controversial 2003 decision, the ICTY tribunal answered in the affirmative. Its determination that the Srebrenica massacre amounted to genocide has been widely questioned among academic authorities on the topic.

Until 1990, the word genocide was used almost exclusively to describe deliberate mass killings of exceptional size and scale, generally in the range of the hundreds of thousands or millions. Genocide was to be separated from more common atrocities, so the term was only rarely applied: millions died in the Korean and Vietnamese wars, for example, with huge loss of civilian life, but without the word genocide being invoked to any significant extent. Hundreds of thousands were killed in civil conflicts in Algeria, Indonesia, and Nigeria — but again with no widespread claims of genocide.

Some wish to expand the concept of genocide even further than the ICTY. Mirsad Tokača of the Sarajevo Research and Documentation Centre argues that “genocide is not a matter of numbers,” with the implication that any number of deliberate killings could constitute genocide. Others have proposed that nonfatal crimes, such as ethnic cleansing, should be classed as genocide.

The extraordinary focus given to the Srebrenica massacre and the Bosnian War is problematic, given the plethora of conflicts that occurred during the same period. If we accept that the Bosnian case was an act of genocide, aren’t we then forced to reclassify recent conflicts like those in Angola, Congo, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Libya, Iraq, Colombia, and numerous others as genocides as well? Should we deem all wars as genocidal, since they almost always entail ethnically motivated killings and cleansings?

The point here is not just that overusing the word gradually diminishes its meaning, but that this elasticity has provided cover for political ends. The redefinition of genocide played a key role in justifying US intervention in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa, establishing these interventions as humanitarian acts designed to protect vulnerable people from aggressive armies.

Public relations during the Bosnian War played a key role in the redefinition of genocide. This public relations campaign, it should be emphasized, was quite unnecessary: if one wished to condemn Serb-led armies, one only needed to show the atrocious things the Serb forces were doing in Bosnia — the reality was damning enough. Still, there were heavy doses of exaggeration and mischaracterization that were used to propagate the idea that the atrocities of the Serb military were not merely horrific, but were actually on the same moral level as the Holocaust — that the Bosnian War amounted to a localized replay of World War II.

The idea that genocide was occurring in Bosnia was established early on — well before the Srebrenica massacre — and seems to have originated with the issue of Serb-run detention centers in Bosnia that housed Muslim and Croat prisoners. Major atrocities and abuses undoubtedly occurred at these sites. But the Bosnian government claimed that these detention centers were Nazi-style extermination camps, similar to Auschwitz or Treblinka.

The prospect of genocide in Bosnia quickly captured the world’s attention and shocked its conscience when Roy Gutman of Newsdaypublicized the supposed Serb death camps. (Gutman would win a Pulitzer Prize for his Bosnia reporting.)

In reality, as President Izetbegović confessed in 2003 interview, the government was deliberately exaggerating the detention camp atrocities. Izetbegović’s extermination claims were further magnified by the New York public relations firm Ruder Finn, which represented Bosnia at the time, as well as much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment.

Once mobilized, the campaign for intervention took on a tone of moral, almost religious, fervor that was predicated on public ignorance of the political situation in the Balkans. As Ruder Finn President James Harff acknowledged in a remarkably candid interview in 1993, “Nobody understood what was happening in Yugoslavia. The great majority of Americans were probably asking themselves in which African country Bosnia was situated.” Writers who opposed the intervention were (and continue to be) denounced, effectively silencing debate.

Amid the maelstrom, it was quickly forgotten that Bosnia was only one of many post–Cold War conflicts, and it was very far from being the most destructive or the most deadly (the Congo probably has that unfortunate distinction). Nevertheless, the widespread belief that Serb forces had committed genocide played a critical role in legitimating the idea of humanitarian intervention, in the Balkans and throughout the world. After Srebrenica, US interventionism would increasingly be presented as a genocide prevention enterprise.

Could the Massacre Have Been Prevented?

The narrative that emerged from Srebrenica didn’t just promote military intervention. It also denigrated the utility of diplomacy in resolving crises. Detractors claimed that international efforts to mediate the Bosnian conflict through negotiations amounted to appeasement reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain, serving only to enable a “genocidal” campaign.

Yet this conventional wisdom is also wrong: diplomatic efforts could very likely have prevented the conflict from occurring in the first place, which would have made the later military intervention unnecessary.

International talks to resolve the Bosnian conflict began in early 1992, shortly before the war began. The effort was directed by Portuguese diplomat José Cutileiro, acting as representative of the European Community. Cutilerio brought the leaders of all three Bosnian ethnic groups to Lisbon, where he sought to establish an agreement to defuse ethnic tensions and thus preclude a civil war. Out of the talks came a plan to divide Bosnia into three semi-autonomous regions, as parts of an ethnic confederation (though still an integral state).

In March 1992, all three ethnic groups agreed to a preliminary version of the peace plan — whatever its flaws, the proposal was presumed to be better than the alternative of war. Crucially, the Serb leaders supported the Cutileiro plan since it granted the Serbs their main objective: self-governance. It was, Serb leader Radovan Karadžić said, “a great day for Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

But the plan broke down with the intrusion of the US. American officials didn’t like the idea that European states might resolve the conflict, which would weaken US prestige and raise questions about the value of the Atlantic Alliance. They were particularly afraid that the European Community might emerge as a distinct power bloc in the post-Soviet world, acting independently of the United States and NATO. Any European Community success in Bosnia would increase the likelihood of an independent Europe — a negative prospect for Washington.

Acting on these concerns, the US ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann, encouraged President Izetbegović to reject the peace plan. According to former State Department official George Kenney, “Zimmermann told Izetbegović . . . [the United States will] recognize you and help you out. So don’t go ahead with the Lisbon agreement.”

Zimmermann himself has publicly denied blocking the Lisbon agreement, but a wide range of sources, including James Bissett, the Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia; Peter Carrington, a former UK foreign minister; and the official Dutch investigation of the Bosnian War, confirm that the US government played a disruptive role. In light of US pressure, the Croats and Muslims both withdrew from the agreement, effectively reneging on their previous commitments. The stage was set for war.

The Cutileiro plan was never implemented, and full-scale war commenced almost immediately. Over the next three years, the European Community/Union — represented mainly by former British foreign minister David Owen — worked with the United Nations and tried to revive the idea of an ethnic confederation. But as Owen discusses in his memoirs, the US continually impeded his negotiation efforts, which prolonged the Bosnian War.

The idea that international diplomacy constituted appeasement and only emboldened “Serb aggressors” is simply a myth; it is also one of the most dangerous tales that has emerged from the Bosnian War, because it has helped justify later efforts to scuttle diplomatic settlements in places like Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya. 

Humanitarian Intervention After Srebrenica

Beginning in August 1995, the United States and its allies opted for an offensive military strategy. A key component of the plan involved the Republic of Croatia, which was expected to assist the Bosnian government in defeating the Serb military.

The operation commenced with a Croatian attack against separatist Serbs within the Republic of Croatia, in the Krajina region, near the border with Bosnia. With US support, the Croatian military quickly defeated the Serb military and crossed the border into western Bosnia, where they linked up with Bosnian government forces for a joint offensive against ethnic Serbs in Bosnia.

From August to October 1995, the combined Bosnian-Croatian thrust was highly successful in defeating Serb forces, rolling back their gains from earlier phases of the war. These offensives were strongly supported by the US government, which had been assisting both the Croatian and Bosnian government forces in their military preparations since 1994. In addition, the US and other NATO states undertook a two-week bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs to support the ground offensive. The US-organized Dayton Accordsof December 1995 finally brought the war in Bosnia and Croatia to a close.

But the military operations had already produced a humanitarian disaster. The offensives in Croatia and Bosnia created over 250,000 refugees, many of whom were Serb civilians who had lived in the Krajina long before the war began. The expelled persons also included large numbers of ethnic Muslims from the Bihać region of Bosnia, who were opposed to the Izetbegović government and therefore deemed suspect. In addition to these mass expulsions, the combined offensives killed hundreds, and possibly thousands, of civilians.

These episodes of ethnic cleansing were considerably smaller than the rounds that had been perpetrated by Serb forces during the war, in both Croatia and Bosnia. Still, the anti-Serb atrocities that attended the August to October 1995 offensives were substantial. In the Krajina alone, Croatian attacks generated “the largest single movement of refugees in Europe since the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956,” according to a Red Cross official, as paraphrased in the New York Times.

And there can be no doubt that this cleansing of Serbs had been planned long in advance. As early as 1993, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman stated in an official meeting, “there is a growing understanding that Croatia must resolve the [Krajina] problem by war, contrary to international norms, meaning by ethnically cleansing the Serbs from Croatia.”

It is true that the military offensives led to the peace talks that ended the war. But the substance of the Dayton Accords was not a great deal different from the Lisbon agreement the US helped sabotage, as well as several other peace plans that were presented during the war.

And in early 1996, shortly after the implementation of the Dayton Accords, there was yet another round of anti-Serb ethnic cleansing, which generated an additional one hundred thousand refugees. The main effect of the NATO intervention was to escalate ongoing atrocities against civilians, and to intensify the humanitarian catastrophe.

Viewed from a humanitarian standpoint, the US response to the Srebrenica massacre was a lethal fiasco. But despite the ugly facts of the episode, a mythology emerged from Srebrenica that emphasized the supposedly benign character of US intervention. In this telling, US policy was the savior of the Bosnian people and the defender of human rights more generally.

Twenty years later, Srebrenica is still shaping US foreign policy. NATO interventions in the Balkans served to legitimate both the Atlantic Alliance and US hegemony, and the new language of human rights and genocide prevention has helped justify later interventions, including the ongoing strikes against ISIS. A truly pivotal event in the post–Cold War era, Srebrenica helped forge a pro-interventionist alliance of both militarist liberals and conservatives. This alliance remains a potent lobby for war to the present day.

This piece first appeared in Jacobin.

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