Saturday, July 11, 2009

11 July 1995: Srebrenica Massacre by Serbian Forces, UN Indifference to Butchery

Although the United Nations, in the course of the Yugoslav Civil War, declared the Bosnian town of Srebrenica a UN safe area under its protection (the first such in history, it should be noted), the small force of UNPROFOR troops shamefully took no measures to protect the residents when Serb forces captured the area. The Serbs proceeded to deport some 25,000 women, old men, and young boys, slaughtering the over 8,000 remaining males.

The military and moral failure of the United Nations and world community on this occasion was stunning.

The standard designation of the event is: the worst massacre or war crime in Europe since the end of World War II (or words to that effect). We pronounce the phrase with clinical accuracy, yet scarcely bother to ponder the chilling meaning of those words—above all, the very fact that "massacres" and "war crimes" took place at all in the late twentieth century, and especially in a continent that should have learned its lessons.

Fourteen years after the traumatic events, much of the world shows little interest in the slaughter of those innocent Muslim civilians. The New York Times (our "newspaper of record"), which found plenty of space for Michael Jackson, had no time for Srebrenica, except in a passing mention in a piece about the trial of Serb leader Radovan Karadžić.

To be sure, newspapers focus more on current news than historical anniversaries, but in this case, the two coincided:
  1. In January, the European Parliament declared July 11 a time for commemoration throughout the EU, as "a symbol of the impotence of the international community to intervene in the conflict and protect the civilian population."
  2. On this anniversary, some 30,000 people gathered to witness the reburial of some of the dead. Some news outlets, such as AP (on which so many others rely), world newspapers, and various television networks, found time and space for the story.
Almost as tragic as the massacre itself are the consequences. The lesson of "the impotence of the international community" remains unlearned, or misunderstood with a vengeance: managing to combine overgeneralization from the principle (so that protection of civilians overrides all other values, even to the exclusion of legitimate military action) with application in a manner that betrays inconsistency, a short attention span, or both.

The tragedy in Darfur has generated considerable attention, though far less action. Even those who do not accept all of Mahmoud Mandani's provocative analyses of western human-rights perspectives on Darfur and mass violence in Africa will agree that the abysmal ignorance of or indifference to the carnage in the Congo is shocking: intrinsically (5.4 million from 1998-2008, and 45,000 every month even after the nominal end of the conflict), and in comparison with the treatment of other cases. And, most recently, we have seen how the world virtually ignored wholesale slaughter in South Asia.

This spring, as many greeted the victory of the Sri Lankan government over the Tamil Tiger rebellion with a sigh of relief, the Times of London reported that the civilian death toll in the final months of the campaign alone exceeded 20,000 (in part because, as Robert Kaplan reports, the Tigers used thousands of human shields, which the government did not scruple to kill). Although this figure was three times higher than the previous official figure, some anonymous UN sources said that the actual total was instead far higher. The New York Times coverage (and only in a blog, at that) focused on denial of the figures by the Sri Lankan government and other journalists but did in passing (its favorite mode) cite UN officials as calling the civilian toll "unacceptably high."

Once again, we await United Nations action. Perhaps one day someone will get tired of waiting.


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