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July 13, 2005

Remembering Genocide in Srebrenica

A decade ago, in the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb soldiers executed and buried in mass graves more than seven thousand Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys. Thirty thousand women, children, and elderly were forcibly deported from their homes. Dutch blue-helmets stood helplessly by as the Bosniaks were taken away. "Kill them all," General Radislav Krstic reportedly said to his deputy. "Not a single one is to be left alive." No doubt, Krstic was acting at the behest of the commander of the army of the Serb Republic, General Ratko Mladic, and president of the Serbian Republic, Radislav Karadzic, both of who shamefully continue to elude capture.

The reverberations of Srebrenica go far beyond the trials and sentencing of the perpetrators. Most important is the continuing effect the massacre has had on Bosniaks themselves: the loss of loved ones, the many humiliations suffered, and the still nagging problem of thousands of missing relatives and friends. The recent release of film clips of Serbian paramilitaries—"Scorpions"—taunting, torturing, and killing a group of Bosniak men and boys has had an important, if still hard to gauge, impact on changing Serb self-images from victims to perpetrators.

As the largest incidence of mass killing in European history since World War II, Srebrenica has also had important implications beyond the borders of Bosnia. The massacre shamed the West into taking concerted military action against the Bosnian Serbs. The launching of Operation Deliberate Force by NATO in August 1995 finally brought peace to the region, codified by the Dayton agreement the following December. The resolute response of the United States and NATO to Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999 can also be traced to the shock waves in the West about the depredations committed by the Serbs at Srebrenica.

Motivated by the frustrations generated by Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda, human rights activists underlined the principle of the "responsibility to protect," whereby the humanitarian norms of the international community should trump those of state sovereignty when citizens are threatened with genocide or ethnic cleansing. This argument most recently found its way into the 2005 U.N. secretary-general's high-level panel report on the future role of the United Nations: "When a State fails to protect its civilians, the international community then has a further responsibility to act, through humanitarian operations, monitoring missions and diplomatic pressure—and with force—if necessary, though only as a last resort."

Srebrenica demonstrates that, if force is designated as the last resort instead of one of many possible policy options, circumstances tend to militate against its use. Especially in situations where multinational efforts are needed to engage in military activity, problems of intelligence, coordination, decision making, and operational effectiveness are often too daunting for concerted action to be taken. The Dutch and the U.N. should have learned that bitter lesson in Srebrenica. On July 11, the tenth anniversary of the fall of the city, the Bosniaks buried the recently discovered remains of another 550 victims of genocide at Potocari Memorial Cemetery.