ABC Radio National Between the Lines

Twenty years ago this week, Serbian forces overran the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, expelled its women and children, and massacred 8,000 Muslim men and boys. Two decades on from the killings,

Twenty years ago this week, Europe witnessed its worst massacre since the Holocaust. On July 11, 1995, Serbian forces overran a Bosnian town called Srebrenica, a United Nations ‘safe haven’ that had been established after Yugoslavia had erupted into civil war.

The chief architects of the massacre, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, were bent on killing or deporting every Bosnian Muslim. Within days, about 23,000 women and children were driven away. About 8,000 defenceless Muslim men and boys left behind were executed and buried in mass graves.

The slaughter was planned thoroughly and executed with precision. All the while, 370 blue-helmet Dutch peacekeepers stood by — and did nothing. Indeed, even when the Serb assault on Srebrenica was imminent, UN commanders still rejected calls for airstrikes on Serb positions.

‘The news and pictures from Bosnia testify to how Europe and humanity are still collapsing into the abyss of degradation,’ lamented Pope John Paul II on July 16, one of the first world leaders to recognise the horror and shame. ‘No cause, no goal can justify such barbaric actions and methods. They are crimes against humanity ... a defeat for civilisation.’

The Yugoslavia civil war was into its fourth year, yet the international community had been unable or unwilling to stop the carnage. By July 1995, the Bosnian death toll neared 300,000. More than a million more were displaced.

So, who is to blame?

Start with the United Nations. From 1992 to 1995, the UN declared Srebrenica the world’s first civilian ‘safe area’. It was supposed to deter aggression, protect the enclave and set the scene for political negotiations to end hostilities between the Bosnian Serbs and Muslims.

But UN officials, as a UN report later documented, made ‘serious errors of judgment’ in Srebrenica that stemmed from a policy of ‘neutrality and non-violence that was unsuited for the conflict in Bosnia’. To enforce the ‘safe area’, the peacekeepers stripped the soldiers of their artillery and armoured vehicles — a so-called arms embargo that was supposed to apply to all sides equally, but which left the Muslims hopelessly outmatched by the better equipped Serbs.

Moreover, as Kofi Annan’s chief of staff Mark Malloch later conceded, member states had failed to provide the UN with the military forces it needed in Bosnia. The blue-helmet peacekeepers, he lamented, should have been more willing to use the forces they had.

There was also the role played by the Europeans. In the early 1990s, the conventional wisdom held that ‘Europe’ had become a leading actor on the global stage, unshackled from its Cold War subservience to Washington. In the Balkans, however, Brussels failed miserably and comprehensively to cope with a crisis at its own backdoor.

Finally, there was the US. Bill Clinton won power in 1992 pledging to reverse the first Bush administration’s ‘appeasement’ of the ‘butchers of Belgrade’. As president, Clinton allowed Bosnia to bleed steadily for years. In fairness, the American people opposed intervention in a region that represented no direct threat to US national interests. The vacillation and ineptitude of Clinton and his secretary of state Warren Christopher prompted French president Jacques Chirac to declare: ‘The position of the leader of the free world was vacant.’

But Srebrenica a month later changed everything. ‘For that [massacre] to happen in the heart of Europe many decades after World War II,’ UN secretary general Kofi Annan later recalled, ‘was something nobody could sit back and swallow.’

Having done nothing the year before during the mass killings in Rwanda, Clinton was galvanised into action. And crucially he cut the UN out of the decision chain. On August 30, Washington led a NATO bombing campaign against the Serbs. By the end of 1995, 60,000 NATO troops — including 20,000 Americans — were on the ground in Bosnia. By November, the US-led military and diplomatic policy led to the Dayton peace accords. The upshot here is that the Yugoslav wars ended only because the US finally acted.

In hindsight, Europe and the UN were useful only as an excuse for inaction. As for the Americans, Bill Clinton should have honoured his campaign pledge to stand up to the Serbs in 1992. Had he done so, the world could have saved thousands of Bosnian lives and almost certainly averted the mass killings at Srebrenica.

This article was originally published at ABC Radio National Between the Lines