In 1995, between July 11-22, Serbian forces murdered 8,327 defenseless Bosnians in an act of genocide. What’s happened to international law and outrage over crimes against humanity?
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. This is Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us again today. 25 years ago, between July 11th and July 22nd, Serbian forces massacred 8,372 defenses Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, a mountain town in Bosnia. Before we get into the conversation and our story, I need to warn you that this story contains graphic and disturbing images and descriptions of crimes against humanity. So you can turn it off if you don’t want to watch it now.
Now the Srebrenica massacre, or genocide, happened 50 years after the liberation of Auschwitz. Another European genocide on European soil, in which unarmed civilians were captured, taken to camps, and murdered systematically, just because of their religion, and ethnic identity, and sometimes on politics. Unlike that moment, Serbia has never dealt with the massacre of Bosnian civilians, it never talked about it in an honest way. The world stood by and did almost nothing to protect the victims. After the war, the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia did convict senior Serbian generals of crimes against humanity. So let’s hear one of them right now. This is Ratko Mladic and what he got to say.
Speaker 2: The chamber finds Ratko Mladic guilty as a member of various joint criminal enterprises of the following counts: Count two, genocide. Count three, persecution, a crime against humanity. Count four, extermination, a crime against humanity. Count five, murder, a crime against humanity. Count six, murder, a violation of the laws or customs of war. Count seven, deportation, a crime against humanity. Count eight, the inhumane act of forcible transfer, a crime against humanity. Count nine, terror, a violation of the laws or customs of war. Count 10, unlawful attacks on civilians, a violation of the laws or customs of war, and count 11, taking of hostages, a violation of the laws or customs of war.
Marc Steiner: The Serbian forces were fully aware how similar their actions were to the actions of the Nazis. In order to cover their tracks, they exhumed the bodies of them victims from mass graves and scatter those bodies using bulldozers, and then they buried them in secret locations. Over a thousand bodies are still missing. The families are so crying for justice after 25 years, after the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.
To discuss the 25th anniversary of the massacre, we will be joined by Julian Borger who covered the Bosnian War for the BBC and wrote the book, The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt. He’s currently world affairs editor for the Guardian and is based in Washington DC. Julian, welcome back to The Real News. It’s a pleasure to have to be with us.
Julian Borger: Pleasure to be here.
Marc Steiner: So Julian, let me just take a step way back for a moment. Let’s set the context here. I mean, many people watching weren’t even aware of what was going on 25 years ago, as is the case with many people. When you look at that conflict in a country that was called Yugoslavia, things fell apart after their leader, Josip Tito, many people, I think, who remember him as the communist leader who fought against the Nazis, who fight the Soviet Union, kept Yugoslavia together with all its frailties and then … But really, or now where, how all this even began? So just to take us back even before this started, just to give context to where we are.
Julian Borger: Okay, and as you said there, after Tito’s death, the glue that held Yugoslavia together began to come apart and the various constituent republics of Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia started to push towards their own independence. Now [Bigia 00:04:18] was in charge of Serbia, and at the time Slobodan Milosevic was, “Hey, I’m willing to let these Republicans go and if they were going to declare independence,” and was determined to create a greater Serbia out of bits and pieces of those republics, out of Croatia, out of Bosnia. That led to wars, wars for territorial control, wars of ethnic cleansing. First in Croatia, and then a much bloodier war in Bosnia that lasted from ’92 to ’95.
Marc Steiner: So we have this war going on in the Balkans 50 years after World War II. We have NATO, we have the UN, and we have the European Union. We’re all involved. I mean, this is the thing that’s hard for people to put their hands around sometimes, the atrocities almost were allowed to happen. You’ve written about this, and just as bad, they were mostly forgotten by world leaders who love to say, “Never again,” except when it happens and so, I mean, there are a lot of reasons for this. Some people will say because Bosnia is too smaller country, only the thousands of people died, not millions, but those are too easy for answers. I mean, what allowed this to happen?
Julian Borger: I think the various international organizations like the European Union, and then the UN, we’re not prepared to confront something like this in the wake of the Cold War. They’d emerged from the Cold War and trying to build institutions, and were not politically, psychologically, institutionally prepared to push back, to take military action if needed to stop mass killings. It was first shown in ’91 when Serbs massacred hospital patients in Vukovar, in Croatia.
The EU wasn’t cohesive enough to act as one. It wasn’t at that stage in its evolution. There, they really passed leadership on to the US, and the US was unsure whether it wants to get involved in a European country, in the middle of what they saw as a civil war. So their leadership just wasn’t there. Unfortunately, it took a hundred thousand deaths to persuade leadership in the US and the EU that there was no option other than military intervention, but it took a lot of deaths, a lot of bloodshed to get to that point.
Marc Steiner: You know, I was looking at a tweet by a journalist [Mortazo Sane 00:07:10]. He draws this connection between Srebrenica and the massacre and the boarders drawn based on ethnic divisions, something which happens across the globe, Israel, Palestine, India, Pakistan, we can name dozens of countries. But sometimes, maybe that’s too simplistic to say genocide was just result of tensions that were based on multiethnic states.
I mean and then you look at the history of Yugoslavia, and you think about the history of Yugoslavia, and during World War II, it was the Serbs who fought the Nazis, and it was the Croatians and many Bosnians who worked with the Axis powers, and the Albania Muslims who saved the Jews. It’s always been a complex place. So what allowed this to happen, do you think, not in terms of the world powers, but just in terms of the situation itself objectively?
Julian Borger: I think, ultimately, it’s a question of a decision of leadership, a decision of Slobodan Milosevic and a group around him, that they were prepared to go to all lengths to create this greater Serbia and everything flowed from that. They drew up a plan about how they were going to go about this, about how they were going to carry out ethnic cleansing. I mean, as you point out, there are ethnic, multi-ethnic countries, all around the world, and in particular, in Europe. It doesn’t, itself, explain why there were mass killings. I think that comes down to a deliberate plan backed up by the racial ideology that was spread through mass media in the former Yugoslavia to create the conditions were neighbors were prepared to kill each other.
Marc Steiner: Yeah, and I remember reading pieces in the Greek press and other places as well. You could clearly see the Muslim/Orthodox, Muslim/Catholic divide in some of the reasoning behind this, but the Serbians were descendants of what was supposed to have been a multinational socialist state, whatever that meant, in the ’40s and ’50s, and Serbians who actually fought the atrocities 50 years ago. Yet they were the ones, or at least the leadership pushed them, and the army carried out these atrocities. I mean, that’s always been something that kind of … I think, it’s hard to answer in terms of what we do as human beings.
Julian Borger: Yes, and the interesting questions that … It brings up how states are able to make their citizens turn against one another with the use of propaganda, as we saw, at about the same time, in Rwanda, this constant dehumanization of the other, the other ethnic group, constantly, through the state controlled apparatus. It creates conditions in which this can happen. It showed the fragility and the vulnerability of those soft of ties of civilization that we think keep us safe in the West.
Marc Steiner: You mentioned Rwanda and Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda. I mean, he built his presidency in part on ending the genocide and ending the civil war. Then Germany, after World War II, adopted these kind of anti-fascist values and repentance for the Holocaust and it became something, a part of the culture. But to this day, Serbian politics just seems to show no remorse. I mean, and deny accusation of a genocide. I mean, what’s happening inside of the Serbian political world that allows it not to confront what it’s done?
Julian Borger: I think the simple answer is that politicians find it easier to get elected by shoving all that aside and appealing to a rosier view of the country’s past. That is the problem, in part, part of populism, more generally, is a rosy view of a country’s past great, and with a rose tinted view of its future and the suppression of uncomfortable facts. We’re seeing that in Serbia, as we see in Brexit in Britain, to a certain amount in the US. It’s an appeal to patriotism that glosses over the dark areas of a country’s history.
Marc Steiner: I’m curious, when you were covering this, the Dutch were there then, the Dutch forces, or the UN force, so the Dutch battalion and they were accused of criminal irresponsibility in all of this and not protecting the Bosnians. It led to an investigation that led to a downfall of a Dutch government years later in 2002. So there’s so much involved here, in terms of complicity, either through non-action or just ignoring the realities.
It looks as if, you know, I was thinking about the article you just wrote, that came out in The Times on Sunday. The Guardian on Sunday. Excuse me, I’m sorry, Julian. You put part of that to the war against Gaddafi, Libya ending, as you put it in your article, you wrote, “Gaddafi is murdered by a mob, and Libya’s fragmentation marked the definitive end of an era for the global response to war crimes.” Then on top of that, you’ve got Donald Trump attacking the ICC. So let’s put these things together in terms of where we are with all this now.
Julian Borger: Okay. Sure. I’m in the aftermath of Rwanda and Bosnia, there was this move, global move, among intellectuals, but also among political leaders, that something more should be done in terms of, being the international community, to be able to A, prevent genocide, intervene to stop genocide, and secondly, to hold those responsible for genocide to account. And this idea of stepping in and stopping genocide through international action was enshrined in this principle called Responsibility to Protect which sort of percolated up through the late ’90s, finally adopted by the UN officially in 2005, and said that, if a state wasn’t prepared to protected some people, then the international community has a responsibility to step in by peaceful means, if at all possible. But failing that under Chapter VII of the UN, with force.
That principle, the principle to protect was cited in the UN resolution under which the US, UK and France got involved in Libya. It was to protect the civilian population who were under attack from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. Russia was uneasy about it, but persuaded to abstain. They, ever since then, felt hoodwinked by the West that that resolution, the UN resolution, was used, ultimately, to remove Muhammad Gaddafi power. They saw it as a slight of hand used by the West to achieve regime change. From that moment on, Russia is not interested at all in Responsibility to Protect.
China never was. But at that time, only a few years ago, wasn’t prepared to be isolated on the UN security council. Now it has no trouble at all stepping in and stopping anything to do with the global application of international humanitarian law and human rights. But China and Russia now are very much a block that would stop any kind of humanitarian intervention so-called, in the future. like we saw it in Libya. So that is really, term in terms of the international community, acting out of responsibility to protect, to step in and stop genocide, that’s kind of over for the time being.
Now, the other part of it, accountability to war crimes. We still see some of the tribunals that were set up to bring accountability, still in operation. But when we look at the ICC, the International Criminal Court, there was supposed to be a general court for these kinds of crimes, we see it without support of Russia, China, and now the US very much on the offensive against it. So the issue of accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes is also in retreat. This is a very low point when it comes to the international response to genocide and other crimes against humanity.
Marc Steiner: I mean … Just to closeout. When you look at what happened in Bosnia, that was 25 years ago, and there’s still a thousand bodies missing. And you think about what you wrote about with Libya and the Russians, I mean, the Western powers, did it use that as an excuse to overthrow Qaddafi?
Julian Borger: Yes.
Marc Steiner: Just dismembered that country? So disillusionment set in, but what happens now when you have the United States in retreat from the ICC because it doesn’t want to be brought to task in Afghanistan, or because of its support for Israel, and in terms of Israel/Palestine, not wanting that to be looked at it all, and China with the Uyghurs. So where does that leave us in terms of international order? All this began because the Holocaust and World War II. I mean, that’s why this was set up originally in the first place, and our consciousness was raised, but something has happened in those intervening years, which has changed everything. So where do you think political will is now? What do you think that the future may lead us?
Julian Borger: That’s a good question, and you framed it as it’s happened … it started with the Holocaust. But you got to remember, even after the Holocaust, during the Cold War, any sense of accountability for mass crimes after Nuremberg was completely forgotten. So we’ve been here before, we’ve seen mass crimes, and then we’ve fallen into amnesia and impotence when it comes to addressing them. Then with the end of the Cold War and these new crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Rwanda, there was a fresh effort, and there was a brief window in which country’s like Russia at the security council we’re prepared to go along with it. That window is now closed.
So when it comes to accountability and seeking to intervene to stop genocide in any kind of muscular way, it’s really left to the countries individual regions. Whenever asked, people who are concerned with the sad study of genocide, genocide denial, and accountability, if they have any optimism for the future, they point to a body of law that has grown up, and also a body of expectations, that if there is genocide and mass crimes in the future, there will be an expectation that something must be done, and that driving force, and that expectation is at least a lasting legacy.
We’re seeing it being put into practice in some small ways. Like in Germany, we’ve seen the first prosecution of Syrian officials for the killings in Syria brought through the principle of universal jurisdiction in the national courts. There will be many more of those kind of cases. So for the time being, in the absence of a court that will look into war crimes in Syria, and Yemen, in Myanmar, we’re at least seeing individual courts, individual countries, step up and kind of pick up the torch when it comes to accountability.
Marc Steiner: Well, first of all, I deeply appreciate you taking the time with us today, Julian. I also really appreciate the work that you’ve been doing over the years in covering this stuff and bringing it to the fore and your book was amazing. So thank you, once again, for joining us here on The Real News, and I look forward to all the conversations as we watch what unfolds in front of us.
Julian Borger: Thank you very much. Pleasure to be on.
Marc Steiner: Always good to have you with us. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Please let us know what you think, and stay safe and take care.
Studio: Will Arenas
Production: Will Arenas