Anyone remember Bosnia ?

It was reported this week that Bosnia reburied the remains of another 409 victims of the Srebrenica massacre, in which the Serbian army  killed 8000 Muslim men and boys in five days in the summer of 1995. You will not have seen this report on any front pages, and many newspapers did not carry it at all.  Imagine in 1963 say – a similar ceremony for victims of the Nazi Holocaust that had ended just 18 years previously. Would it not have been attended by senior UN functionaries, leading politicians and statesmen from many countries, and contrite members of the new generation of German politicians ? Would there not have been solemn declarations that “Never again” would such atrocities be allowed to happen ?

So what is the difference ? Why did last week’s ceremony happen in virtual obscurity amid the indifference – mainly in fact, ignorance – of all but those most immediately affected by the massacre ?

Because of the vast scale of the Second World War, and the fact that few people can have escaped being affected by it, awareness of German culpability – for the war in general and the Holocaust in particular – was virtually universal. The defeat and destruction of Germany were so absolute, that there was also a general moral satisfaction that the Germans had got what they deserved. The Nuremberg trials, the subsequent pursuit and prosecution of other German war criminals, and the reparations that the German government agreed to pay to surviving victims of the Holocaust were all evidence of an inexorable process of justice being done.

The Bosnian war, on the other hand, did not affect most of us; we were aware of it – because it provided rich fodder for war correspondents – but when it was over, we quickly forgot it. Nor did it end with the defeat of the Serbian aggressor; quite the contrary. In the agreement that finally ended the war, Serbia was rewarded with the achievement of one of its principal war aims, the establishment of a “Republika Srpska” as a part of the Bosnia- Herzegovina federation.  As for the attempted genocide of Bosnian Muslims; some of the principal architects were eventually and very reluctantly handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia  – it was the price that Serbia would have to pay if it wanted to join the EC.

How is the Tribunal doing in punishing war criminals of the Bosnian conflict ? As of February 2013, the Tribunal has indicted 161 individuals, and has completed proceedings with regard to 97 of them: 17 have been acquitted, 67 sentenced, 13 have had their cases transferred to courts in one of the former Yugoslav republics. Of those found guilty, a maximum of 15 have been sentenced to anything from 5 years to life for involvement specifically in the Srebrenica massacre. I am not an expert on such matters, but I am sure that the killing of 8000 people in 5 days would have required many more than 15 willing hands. Where are these others now ? Does anyone have any plans to pursue them and bring them to justice ? When the current trial of Radovan Karadžić, former president of the Republika Srpska, is over the Tribunal will wrap up its work; so I somehow doubt it. And Srebrenica was just one – albeit the largest  – of several massacres of Muslims.

The same Reuters stringer who reported on last week’s reinterment ceremony, continued her report with a brief update on the current status of the three former Yugoslav republics:

 Bosnian neighbor ..Croatia joined the European Union on July 1 and Serbia is on the cusp of accession talks following a landmark accord with Kosovo.. Bosnia, however, trails the pack, still hostage to the ethnic politicking of rival Serb, Croat and Muslim leaders that has stifled developments and kept it languishing on the margins of Europe.

What ,in fact, Bosnia is “still hostage” to is the total unworkability of the constitutional arrangements foisted on it by the United States, the so-called “Dayton Accords”.  These set up two national entities in the territory of Bosnia, a Muslim/Croat federation and the Serb Republic. Each entity has its own parliament, government, police force and army. The central organs of government for the whole of Bosnia – responsible only for monetary policy, foreign policy, foreign trade, customs and immigration – consist of a parliament, a council of ministers and a three-person presidency.  It is hardly Bosnia’s “fault” – as implied by the term “ethnic politicking” – that progress has been difficult. The state cobbled together at Dayton under impatient US pressure to end the conflict was designed for failure.

To be fair, the Reuters correspondent’s ignorance of the real causes of Bosnia’s current problems is no greater than that displayed by the world in general throughout the Yugoslav war and subsequently, an ignorance that determined the attitude of the UN, the EU, individual European countries and the USA toward Bosnia. Their perception was that the conflict was just a rather vicious resurgence of an ongoing and ancient internal quarrel between different Balkan ethnicities. This is what  – more than anything else – motivated and justified the sanctimonious “even-handedness” that denied the Bosnians the possibility of adequately defending themselves, and rewarded the Serbs with a rich pay-off for their aggression and genocide.

The characterization by British Prime Minister John Major of the causes of the conflict as the “ancient hatreds in the old Yugoslavia” typifies the world’s ignorance of the history of the area and consequent misperceptions of the conflict.  Before returning to the consequences of these misperceptions, it is worthwhile interjecting a short summary of the historical facts.

When the Yugoslav Federation came apart at the seams at the end of the 1980’s – for much the same set of economic and political reasons that had brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union – the constituent parts naturally tried to coalesce around a series of largely religious/regional national identities. It is fashionable to use the word ethnicities to describe such identities, but in this case it is incorrect and misleading. The vast majority of the today’s Balkan populations – with the possible exception of some Albanians – are all Slavs, descendants of people who migrated into the Balkans from Asia in the 6th century. They all speak the same Slavic language, with some regional dialects, which we call Serbo-Croat. They are ethnically more homogeneous than many other countries. The idea of ethnicity was deliberately manipulated by the Serb leadership in order to create enmity between people whose primary differences were of religion.scan0115_c

The eastern side of the Balkan Peninsula, including what is now Serbia, was closest to and therefore under the most direct influence of the Byzantine empire; this is the reason that Serbs are Orthodox Christians, the original religion of the Greek Orthodox Church based in Constantinople. The western side of the Balkans (Croatia), the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic Sea and its hinterland, was for hundreds of years dominated by the Republic of Venice and other Catholic states of the Italian peninsula; for this reason, Croatians are Catholics. Bosnia in the middle was, during the early middle-ages, somewhat of a battleground between the competing Churches of Constantinople and Rome. For this reason – and unlike the other two countries – Bosnia never developed a strong national church, either Orthodox or Catholic. Consequently when, in the 15th century, the Ottoman Turks absorbed the Balkan peninsula into their empire, it was relatively easy for many Bosnians to abandon Christianity for Islam – and often economically and politically advantageous to do so.

It is of course not as neat as it sounds; on the eastern side of Bosnia, near to the border with Serbia, large parts of the population remained Orthodox; similarly in some of the more western parts of Bosnia, people remained Catholic. And people do not stay in one place; over the course of centuries – driven by wars, economic hardship or opportunities, or plague – whole populations drift from one area to another. Consequently, although a plurality of Bosnians were Muslims, many were either Orthodox or Catholic.

Slovenia in the north and Croatia were the first two republics to formally secede from the Yugoslav federation. There was not a great deal the Serbs could do about the Slovenes, a small and religiously homogeneous population; after a couple of weeks of war, stoutly resisted by the Slovenes, the Serbs gave up. Croatia on the other hand, with its more mixed population of Catholics and Orthodox, was ripe for manipulation. Serbian propaganda targeted Orthodox population centers in the Krajina (the area where Croatia “bends” eastward around Bosnia) warning them that the Croats were going to practice an “ethnic cleansing” of Serbs. They used classic propaganda techniques in order to encourage the local “Serbs” to take up arms in their own defense. They helped in forming and arming local militias, and soon were able to effectively detach the Krajina from the rest of Croatia, and declare an “independent Serb republic” there.

In Bosnia, they used the same propaganda techniques this time directed against the Muslim population. Here, in addition to stirring up the Bosnian “Serbs” against their Muslim neighbors, Serbia – which has a much longer border with Bosnia than it does with Croatia – was able to intervene directly with the full power of the ex-Yugoslav army. It was this that allowed the Serbs to take over the eastern half of Bosnia and – amongst other things – subject the capitol Sarajevo to a 3 year long siege and bombardment.

The UN and the rest of the world – treating this as if it was family quarrel – remained strictly neutral.  But,  as the French UN sergeant said, in the 2001 film about the Bosnian war, “No man’s land”: “ To be neutral in this conflict is to take sides”. The most damaging effect of this misguided neutrality was an arms embargo, enforced throughout the war. This in effect was to side with the  Serbs, who were unaffected by an arms embargo; they had the whole of the Yugoslav armed forces – artillery, tanks and other armor and – most importantly – air power. The Bosnians, on the other hand, had very little. Toward the end of the war, they did manage to obtain some heavier weapons, and together with the Croats, were making headway in pushing the Serbs back from the territory they had occupied. If they had been allowed to fight on a level playing field, in terms of arms, the war would have ended very differently, and Serbia might indeed have suffered some consequences for its aggression.

One of the positive – as opposed to purely retributive – sentiments that emerged from the Holocaust was the conviction that “Never Again” should such a horror be allowed to happen. The Jews fought to secure a homeland under their own sovereignty – an achievement tragically delayed by the outbreak of the second world war – as a very tangible expression of that conviction. For its part, the community of nations formulated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and established the International Court of Justice to police it, and set up the whole apparatus of the UN to give it international legitimacy and authority.

Whereas the State of Israel – notwithstanding several deplorable lapses, such as the Oslo Accords or unilateral withdrawals from Southern Lebanon and Gaza – has more or less remained committed to the idea that Jews will never again be victims of a Holocaust, the world in general has demonstrated time and again that it never really meant “Never Again”.  The UN, as the principal agency for its commitment to Human Rights, is a sham of an organization devoted to pursuing its own version of neutrality in any conflict and totally incapable – as demonstrated yet again by Srebrenica, and the virtually contemporaneous Rwandan genocide – of minimally protecting the most basic of human rights – the right to life.

Many of the same attitudes displayed by the world toward the Bosnian conflict can be seen in attitudes toward the Israeli/Palestinian one. Although – for many of the wrong reasons – the latter is more central to the world’s concerns than Bosnia was, the general mindset prefers to ignore the rights and wrongs of the issues and the actions of either party, in favor of a patronizing “neutrality”, as if the dispute is one between recalcitrant schoolchildren, who just have to be forced to shake hands and “make up”. When Israel is offered “international guarantees” – particularly where these rely on the EU or UN involvement  – in underwriting the terms of any eventual settlement with the Palestinians, its negotiators should be very mindful of the abysmal track record of these bodies.