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Lessons from Srebrenica

By Jed Lea-Henry - posted Friday, 17 July 2015

Anniversaries, by their very nature, are contrived events. Certain moments seem so significant, and their diminishment with time so unpalatable, that the only appropriate response is to make their memory a matter of organisation and routine.

So it is that 20 years ago this week, after a seemingly endless besiegement, Bosnian-Serb forces officially "liberated" Srebrenica. Three days later the gears shifted, the violence became systematic, and Europe was witnessing its first genocide since the Second World War. However, more than just a ritualised act of remembering, the anniversary of Srebrenica offers a series of lessons that are still pertinent today.

Lesson one: In the absence of a strong state, identity-based violence is always just moments away

Following the collapse of Communist party rule in the former Yugoslavia, the old federation began to fragment. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in 1991, and Bosnia-Herzegovina followed suit in 1993. As the Yugoslav state, along with the common Yugoslav identity, began to fade, power vacuums formed, and ever-deepening cycles of ethnic entrenchment quickly took over.


Groups, once culturally similar, living side-by-side, speaking the same language, intermarrying, and often visually inseparable were driven back into their ethnic identities out of a deep Hobbesian panic. Fearing the ethnic mobilisation of their neighbours, Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks no longer able to rely upon their state for protection, addressed this new insecurity through ethnic mobilisation of their own.

Through this new spectrum, the presence of a Bosniak majority population in Srebrenica – a small mountain village in Bosnia-Herzegovina, only 15 kilometres from the Serbian border – was seen as an intolerable situation insofar as it stood outside the newly forming greater-Serbia. So it was that the massacre in Srebrenica – violence so shocking in its intent that it stirred a new legal description, 'ethnic cleansing' – was as much a product of irrational fear, as it was of cold hatred.

Lesson two: In situations such as this, neutrality is not an option – force, or at least the credible threat of force, is a prerequisite for any successful humanitarian intervention:

In April 1993 – two years before the genocide - Srebrenica, by virtue of United Nations Resolution 819, became a designated 'safe area'. And from the beginning, Commander in Chief of the Bosnian-Serb army, Ratko Mladic, set out to test the substance of this commitment. As the UN Peacekeeping force was arriving, Mladic was looking for a precedent by which to judge the future terms of his assault on Srebrenica: he simply maintained his siege and waited for the international response.

Commander of the UN Protection Force in Bosnia, General Philippe Morillon, arrived in Srebrenica under this onslaught and, despite the carnage around him, infamously denied smelling the "odour of death" – Mladic had his standard. The Peacekeepers had two key, and potentially incompatible, mandates: to protect the civilian population of Srebrenica, and to maintain neutrality. Based on this first encounter, Mladic reasoned that their commitment to the latter would always outweigh the former.

In a two year encore to genocide, the Peacekeepers maintained an implacable commitment to passive indifference, all the while the Bosnian-Serb forces escalated their siege of Srebrenica. By the time of the genocide, the violence had increased to such levels that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an organisation well practiced at operating within war zones, had been forced out of the area under mortar fire.

Three days prior to the genocide, NATO command had promised a series of air assaults as a last minute attempt to push back the Serbian forces. These strikes were abandoned after administrative officers pointed out the requisite paperwork had been filled out incorrectly, and by that afternoon Mladic was strolling through the streets of Srebrenica.


As Serbian forces were going house-to-house, rounding up civilians, and shelling those who managed to flee, the Dutch Peacekeepers watched on passively. To make matters worse, the same Dutch forces had earlier confiscated the armaments of the local Bosniaks – as per the terms of the 'safe area'. Now, not only were they refusing to defend those people whom they had disarmed, but they also refused requests to return the weapons to the community so that they might defend themselves. Accordingly, the restrictive rules of UN 'non-engagement' had not only failed to prevent the genocide in Srebrenica, but had actively contributed to it.

Lesson three: Despite this, it is prudent to be cautious in our judgement. There is an after-the-fact tendency to overly simplify what were, at the time, messy moral landscapes.

The indifference of the Dutch Peacekeepers was not entirely as it seemed. By all accounts they were both underprepared and ill-equipped for the situation in Srebrenica. Yet it is hard to imagine that sufficient preparation was ever possible: tasked with providing humanitarian aid and shelter to a region seen both as a threat and as a strategic asset, the success of the mission always relied solely upon the good will of the Bosnian-Serb hierarchy.

However, this was never a realistic expectation: Serbian forces had already shown that they had no compulsion against violating the sanctity of Peacekeeping operations, with the Dutch forces in Srebrenica aware that many of their comrades had already been imprisoned and used as human shields in the wider conflict. Moreover, as the genocide began, Serbian forces made an explicit threat to kill any Peacekeeper who tried to intervene.

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About the Author

Jed Lea-Henry is a writer, academic, and the host of the Korea Now Podcast. You can follow Jed's work, or contact him directly at Jed Lea-Henry and on Twitter @JedLeaHenry.

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