9 July 2005
Srebrenica: Justice at Last?
By Gwynne Dyer
Sometimes diplomats can be very stupid. Right through late June and
early July, British diplomats in the Balkans pushed the notion that
Monday’s commemoration of the massacre of almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Serbian and Bosnian Serb troops at Srebrenica ten years ago was an ideal opportunity for everybody there, including Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian
Muslim leaders, to issue a joint declaration of “reconciliation and apology.” To their surprise, the victims didn’t think this was such a good idea.
What happened at Srebrenica on 11 July, 1995 was an act of
genocide, carried out with meticulous attention to detail by Serbian and
Bosnian Serb troops after the Dutch military force that was supposed to
defend the UN-declared “safe area” delivered almost the entire Muslim
population of the town into their hands without a fight. Neither Muslims
nor Croatians had any reason to apologise for the horrors at Srebrenica.
It is the Serbs and the Dutch who need to apologise — but most Serbs are
still in deep denial.
In recent weeks, both the Serbian parliament in Belgrade and the
Serbian caucus in the Bosnian parliament have refused to adopt or voted
down proposed declarations that would have denounced the Srebrenica
massacre. Somebody even planted two very powerful bombs near the memorial
centre in Srebrenica, although they were discovered and disarmed in time.
The reformist Serbian president, Boris Tadic, insisted on showing up for
the ceremony, but his presence was condemned equally by Muslim survivors
and by his own fellow Serbs.
Forgiveness and reconciliation must happen one day, but it cannot
even get onto the agenda while the chief organisers of the Srebrenica
genocide, former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karazic and his
military chief General Ratko Mladic, are still free and still seen as
heroes by many other Serbs. Both men have technically been on the run
since NATO forces imposed a ceasefire and a kind of UN trusteeship on
Bosnia in 1995, but they moved freely around Serbia until their patron,
Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, was overthrown and delivered into the
hands of the UN in 2001. Even now, they are hidden and protected by many
Although they were both indicted for genocide, war crimes, and
crimes against humanity by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague ten
years ago, they have thumbed their noses at international law for a decade
because NATO troops either couldn’t find them, or didn’t try to break
through their rings of bodyguards and arrest them because the casualties
would be too high.
Now, however, the tectonic plates are finally beginning to shift in
the geographical space that used to be Yugoslavia — now splintered into
Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia-Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and
Kosovo — because the European Union has finally started to use its
leverage. It’s more carrot than stick: the real inducement for these
countries to turn themselves into law-abiding democracies is that they have
been led to believe that they might then qualify for EU membership, with
all the prosperity and security that that would imply.
But law-abiding democracies hand over indicted war criminals to
international courts when requested to do so, so suddenly the mass
murderers who carried out atrocious acts of “ethnic cleansing” become a
liability for the governments that had hitherto been protecting them as war
In 1998, five years after the war crimes tribunal was created the
detention centre in The Hague only held five inmates. Now there are 62
detainees, including a former president, a former prime minister, a former
defence minister and a former interior minister. Eighteen more are out on
bail pending trial, and 56 others have already been convicted and moved to
other prisons to serve their sentences.
“This is without doubt the most active and productive period in the
life of the tribunal thus far,” Judge Theodor Meron, president of the
tribunal, wrote to the UN Security Council last month. Twenty men, some of
them very senior officials, have surrendered to the tribunal in the past
six months, cutting the list of those still wanted to only ten. The
missing ten still include all three of the biggest fish — Karadzic, Mladic
and Croatian General Ante Gotovina — but even they may soon be arriving in
The EU’s refusal to continue with Croatia’s entrance negotiations
has transformed Zagreb’s willingness to cooperate with the tribunal. Its
refusal even to open talks with Serbia-Montenegro until Belgrade stopped
stalling has had a similar result: in April General Nebojsa Pavkovic,
former head of the Serbian army, surrendered himself in The Hague. There
is suspicion that his and other recent wave of “surrenders” was eased by
large cash payments by the Serbian government to the families of the
indicted men, but the point is that it is actually happening at last.
There is even hope that Karadzic and Mladic may soon be delivered
to the tribunal. Last Thursday Karadzic’s son Aleksandar (Sasa) was
suddenly arrested by NATO troops in the Bosnian Serb town of Pale, his
father’s former capital, and taken away for questioning. Nothing will
bring the victims of the genocide back to life, but the hunt is closing in
on the killers.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“Although…high”; and
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journal whose articles
are published in 45 countries.