On July 13, 1995, there began in the former Yugoslavia what former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan was to call the worst war crime in Europe since 1945: the shooting by Serb forces of over 8,000 unarmed men and boys at Srebrenica. The victims’ only crime was to have been Muslims.
By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, Theodor Meron, presiding judge of the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, declared, “The Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They 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.”
Women and children were forcibly transferred and made subject to unspeakable atrocities. All this was but the climax to a campaign of ethnic cleansing that had seen the destruction of over 256 Muslim villages in Bosnia.
Primary responsibility for the atrocities lies with those who perpetrated it. But a secondary responsibility lies with those who could have prevented it but did not. Sadly, my own country, Britain played a particularly dishonorable part, having pressed the UN to impose an arms embargo in the former Yugoslavia, the practical effect of which was to prevent the Muslims from defending themselves against the Serb Army, the fourth strongest in Europe.
Britain’s then-foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, defended the embargo by declaring that lifting it would create a “level killing field,” a remark that drew from Margaret Thatcher, then in retirement, the stinging retort that there already was a “killing field the like of which I thought we would never see in Europe again. It is in Europe’s sphere of influence. It should be in Europe’s sphere of conscience.”
“Britain,” Robert Hunter, American ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998, has declared, “has a huge burden of responsibility for what happened at Srebrenica.”
In March 1999, during the Kosovo conflict, around 700,000 ethnic Albanians were driven from their homes by Serb forces, and there were also numerous atrocities by Muslim forces. Labour prime minister Tony Blair, took a different view from his Conservative predecessors, pressing NATO to commit troops to Kosovo to counter ethnic cleansing, and this led rapidly to the fall of Serb president Slobodan Milosevic.
Israeli Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer and Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, have said that the Srebrenica massacre is incorrectly described as genocide since there is no evidence that the Serbs intended to kill every single Muslim.
PERHAPS A better comparison would be with Nazi persecution before 1941 when extermination of Jews became official policy.
What cannot be in doubt is the suffering of people whose only crime was in belonging to the wrong ethnic group.
In a speech in Chicago in 1999, Tony Blair declared that the world needed “a new doctrine of international community [to give] explicit recognition that today more than ever before, we are mutually dependent.” In consequence, we had a right if not a duty, to intervene to prevent atrocities, to deal with “massive flows of refugees” who become “threats to international peace and security,” and to combat rogue states.
These ideas were embodied in the 2005 United Nations initiative “Responsibility to Protect,” based on the principle that sovereignty is not a right but a responsibility. But Blair’s “new doctrine” has proved of little comfort to victims of the civil war in Syria.
The massacre showed, as of course the Holocaust had done, that promises and guarantees by international human rights organizations are worth little. In the early 1940s, not even Winston Churchill was able to overcome the inertia of the British bureaucracy so as to secure the bombing of Auschwitz, while Roosevelt offered warm words but no action.
At the outbreak of the civil war in Yugoslavia, in May 1991, Luxembourg foreign minister Jacques Poos, whose country held the presidency of the European Union, declared, “The hour of Europe has dawned.” But the European Union, founded to overcome the crimes of the Nazi era, did nothing to prevent a massacre on its doorstep. Nor was the UN any better. It had declared Srebrenica a “safe area” in 1993, but UN forces in the vicinity took no action either.
The lesson will not be lost on Israel. In 1957, Israel withdrew from the Sinai in return for an American guarantee of free passage in the Straits of Tiran. But when Egypt’s president Nasser blocked the straits in 1967, it was left to Israel to secure their reopening in the Six Day War, whose consequences reverberate to this day.
A peace treaty with the Palestinians, therefore, needs to be backed up with something more than international guarantees. “Covenants without swords,” Hobbes tells us in Leviathan, “are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.”
The writer is professor of government at King’s College, London. His Stimson lectures delivered at Yale last year on Britain and Europe in troubled times will be published in September by Yale University Press. He is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Israel Democracy Institute.