10 October 2005

Srebrenica — Auschwitz of our time?

By Tapani Lausti

Diana Johnstone, Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions. Pluto Press 2002.

Reading reports and commentaries on the Srebrenica massacre's tenth anniversary one gets a strong impression that most writers are completely unaware of the controversy over the exact nature of those awful events. Indeed, the whole history of the Balkans of the 1990s is being used as an excercise in propaganda rather than a serious attempt to understand what really happened and why. The distortions are then used to create questionable ideas for the handling of other conflicts. The whole concept of crisis management is in danger of becoming entangled in all sorts of misconceptions.

Last June, a Finnish professor of international relations and a roving diplomat in the Balkans, Alpo Rusi, wrote a magazine column with the title "Srebrenica is the Auschwitz of our time" ("Srebrenica on aikamme Auschwitz", Suomen Kuvalehti, 17 June 2005). "Where were you when people were executed in Srebrenica?" he demands to know and then proceeds to give a typically simplified account of the war in Bosnia.

In her book, Diana Johnstone makes seven critical observations about the events in Srebrenica: 1) The "safe areas" in Bosnia Herzegovina were not demilitarized, and thus served as Muslim military bases under UN protection. 2) The Muslim military force stationed in Srebrenica - some 5,000 men under the command of Naser Oric, had carried out murderous raids against nearby Serbian villages. 3) Izetbegovic pulled Naser Oric out of Srebrenica prior to the anticipated Serb offensive, deliberately leaving the enclave undefended. 4) The United States used the inevitable failure of the ambiguous "UN safe area" concept to discredit the United Nations as a peacekeeping force, thus promoting NATO to that role. 5) The number of Muslims killed or missing after the fall of Srebrenica is uncertain, and more effort has been made to inflate the figures than to identify and count the real victims. 6) The initial accusation against the Bosnian Serbs was politically motivated. 7) Insofar as Muslims were actually executed following the fall of Srebrenica, such crimes bear all the signs of spontaneous acts of revenge rather than a project of "genocide". (pp. 109-118)

(Edward Herman wrote recently: "The Srebrenica events had a number of features that made it possible to claim 8,000 'men and boys' executed. One was the confusion and uncertainty about the fate of the fleeing Bosnian Muslim forces, some reaching Tuzla safely, some killed in the fighting, and some captured. The 8,000 figure was first provided by the Red Cross, based on their crude estimate that the BSA had captured 3,000 men and that 5,000 were reported 'missing.' It is well established that thousands of those 'missing' had reached Tuzla or were killed in the fighting, but in an amazing transformation displaying the eagerness to find the Bosnian Serbs evil and the Muslims victims, the 'reaching safety/killed-in-action' basis of being missing was ignored and the missing were taken as executed! This misleading conclusion was helped along by the Red Cross's reference to the 5,000 as having 'simply disappeared,' and its failure to correct this politically biased usage and claim despite its own recognition that 'several thousand' refugees had reached Central Bosnia." The Politics of the Srebrenica Massacre, ZNet, 7 July 2005)

Whatever the exact truth, the events were awful enough in themselves. However, the episode has been used propagandistically as evidence of the "genocidical plans" of the Serbs. Indeed, the Serbs became such an object of Western hate that during the Kosovo crisis the bombing of civilian targets by NATO planes was defended by saying that the Serbs were collectively guilty for all the horrors in the Balkans and deserved the bombs which were raining on them. Johnstone writes: "The Europeans who had unwittingly contributed to the disaster were certainly not eager to take the blame, and the easiest place to shift it all was to the Serbs." (p. 41)

Alpo Rusi on his part draws broad historical conclusions and lectures his readers with a knowing tone: "The 'appeasement politics' of the UN and the EU or 'the use of peaceful enforcement' were in the last resort to blame for the mass murder in Srebrenica." According to Rusi, the EU and the UN imagined that "ending the war by using force was not their responsibility and that using force would not 'advance the cause of peace'." He then throws in a comparison with Neville Chamberlain "who at the end of the 1930s believed that he could forestall war with personal 'good relations' with dictators".

So cast aside any worries of military intervention being counterproductive. Go for it before it's "too late". War is peace. The lesson of the Balkans completely lost to people like Rusi is that all along outside powers tended to make things worse.

Reading Johnstone's book it becomes clear how bringing Auschwitz into the debate has certainly been useful propaganda: "The reference to Hitler and the Holocaust is symptomatic of an ideological transformation of the unique events of World War II into role-playing patterns that repeat themselves again and again, allowing the 'good' power, the United States, to resort repeatedly to military conquest of Evil." (p. 251)

In this way, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars still define our era. Until then the memories of the horrors of the Second World War and the war in Vietnam made people shudder at even a thought of war. With the Balkans, suddenly, war was glorified with the merit of being "humanitarian". Enthusiasm for military solutions was evident.

In Johnstone's words: "This acceptance of war was couched in moral terms: war was not only inevitable, it was good. NATO had taken upon itself to overrule the postwar international legal order set up around the United Nations and decree unilaterally that war was no longer the scourge of mankind, the worst of all 'humanitarian catastrophes', but rather, when employed by enlightened Western powers, the proper means to protect 'human rights' and punish the wicked." (p. 3)

The irony of it all is that many left-liberal groups and movements had much responsibility in preparing the ground for this aggressive stance of the US. Internationally active humanitarian NGOs were in the forefront of the demand for "humanitarian intervention" and launched inflamatory and unsubstantiated accusations against the Yugoslav government, as Johnstone complains.

"Apparently many people on the left, who would normally defend peace and justice, were fooled or confused by the claim that the 'Kosovo war' was waged for purely humanitarian reasons. The altruistic pretensions of NATO's Kosovo war served to gain public acceptance of war as the appropriate instrument of policy. This opened the way for the United States, in the wake of 11 September 2001, to attack Afghanistan as the opening phase of a new, long-term 'war against terrorism'." (p. 1)

And where did all this "humanitarian warfare" take us? Johnstone answers the question in this way: "War and resulting economic disaster have delivered the region to criminal enterprises, notably smuggling of drugs, arms, and women. These activities threaten to raise the level of criminal violence in the Western European and NATO countries themselves." (p. 256)

Awful things have been happening in Kosovo after it became a Western dominion: "Albanian Kosovars could no longer resist the most extreme Albanian racist incitement against Serb neighbours when the greatest world powers, the United States and Germany, endorsed the view that Serbs were wicked people, plotting genocide." (p. 252)

The earlier passionate crusaders for "humanitarian intervention" are now silent. They have moved on.

See also:

Visit also the Balkans section of the archive

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