Last month saw the conviction of Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, also known as the ‘butcher of Bosnia’, for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Delivering the verdicts, judge Alphons Orie said Mladić’s crimes “rank among the most heinous known to humankind and include genocide and extermination”.
Mladic was a key architect of some of the worst crimes in Europe in the 20th century, but all the more shocking for coming after four decades of European vows of ‘never again’. He was responsible for the siege of Sarajevo, the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs and the seizure of more than 200 UN peacekeepers as hostages. Most chillingly, he is accused of being ultimately responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, when more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were summarily executed in cold blood by Bosnian Serbs.
As the verdict was read out at the UN Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, many will be tempted to see the crimes of which he is accused as just more violence from a violent region, and dismiss the whole Bosnian war itself as a local Balkan problem, for which blame can be confined to a part of the map which we have associated with violence for centuries anyway.
But that is a self-serving half-truth. The other half is much more disturbing: we – mainstream Europe and its foreign policy establishment of the time – could have stopped the worst of his excesses, but decided not to.
In 1992 the nascent Bosnian republic was attacked by Serb forces. Soon the UN was hearing accounts of Bosnians being rounded up into camps and beaten with metal rods and wooden clubs, men being castrated and women raped and mutilated. This was mass-killing on Europe’s doorstep, but when Clinton pressed Mitterand et al to join America to intervene to stop it, he was shocked to find the French President more worried about the emergence of a Bosnian state than preventing more massacres.
What Europe could have done
Europe could have helped in other ways. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, the majority of the country’s armories and barracks were in Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia. This gave the Serbs a military advantage against the Croats and Bosniaks. The Bosniaks needed arms if they were to defend themselves. Ordinarily acquiring them would not have been a problem. But Europe and America prevented them from buying any with an embargo which effectively locked the Bosniak’s military disadvantage in place. The US Senate called on Clinton to end the arms embargo and persuade European countries to do the same. Clinton recorded in his autobiography how Europe – particularly France and Britain – refused to lift the embargo which would have given the Bosniaks a better chance of defending themselves.
I am afraid that that Europe – neither the foreign policy establishment nor as a people - have taken on board the consequences of our inactivity in the early nineties.Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
But Europe could have helped in still other ways. It was clear that the Serbs wanted to completely clear the territory they controlled of Muslims: Mladic’s troops destroyed every Mosque in the territory they controlled. In his book ‘Unfinest Hour: How Britain Helped to Destroy Bosnia’, Cambridge Professor Brendan Simms writes that the European foreign policy establishment went on to try to prevent armed protection for humanitarian convoys. They even tried to prevent the international community providing relief for enclaves of Bosnian refugees, and even a war crimes tribunal. Simms quotes a former Polish Prime Minister, who says that whenever there was a likelihood of effective action, the British foreign policy establishment intervened to prevent it. Most inexplicable of all was the argument that there was no need for Britain to let any of the Bosnian refugees have sanctuary here.
The arguments that force would not work against the Serbs was eventually crushed – it was NATO strikes which eventually precipitated the negotiations which ended the war. But it was too late for the innocent victims who had been beaten, clubbed, raped or shot. Needless to say, this has not been forgotten by those affected by it and their relatives. One report last week from the court depicted scores of elderly Bosnian Muslim women sitting in the gallery, listening to the translation of the evidence through headphones, weeping or staring silently into the middle distance. One told a reporter that this trial was “for the politicians and the leaders who gave the green light. Shame on them."
I am afraid that that Europe – neither the foreign policy establishment nor as a people - have taken on board the consequences of our inactivity in the early nineties. For we are once again seeing atrocities on an industrial scale happening in Myanmar, Syria. South Sudan and elsewhere and once again European inaction is deafening.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim