Monday, July 20, 2015

Why Srebreica Matters.

 MFP physician Dr. Lewis Marshall at the refugee camp at Tuzla.

In July 1995, Medicine For Peace sent a medical team to Tuzla, Bosnia to assist displaced women and children who had survived the massacre at Srebrenica. We stayed in Bosnia for six more years, operating a school-based mental health program in Kozarac, one of the first Muslim towns subjected to the Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing.

On July 8, 2015, the U.N. Security Council debated a resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre that occurred during the Bosnian war as a crime of genocide.

Forty thousand Bosnian Muslims sought refuge in the U.N. designated  “safe area” of Srebrenica in July 1995, under the protection of a small contingent of Dutch U.N. peacekeeping forces. The Bosnian Serb Army and Serbian paramilitaries held the often play the “atrocities occurred on all sides” card were often children and the elderly were terrorized and sexually assaulted before being forcibly expelled from the area. Over the next ten days, approximately 8,000 Muslim males, age 12-77, were systematically executed at nearby killing fields, thrown into mass graves, and covered over using bulldozers. Both the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice have ruled that these events constitute the crime of genocide because it was a deliberate, preconceived plan of mass executions and forced displacements with the intent of ridding Eastern Bosnia of its Muslim population. In their ruling, the International Courts relied on sworn testimonies from more than one thousand survivors, as well as forensic data from twenty years of unearthing mass graves.

Russia vetoed the Security Council resolution, with China, Venezuela, Angola and Nigeria abstaining. Russia, a fellow Christian Orthodox country, is a traditional ally of Serbia. Also, Russia and the countries abstaining have economic and military agreements with Serbia. Their statements after the vote all read from the same script: the Security Council resolution would doom the region to more tension, and that atrocities occurred on all sides of the conflict. Individuals and Governments who are apologists for the massive and disproportionate slaughter of civilians by the Bosnian Serbs and Serbian paramilitaries often play the “atrocities occurred on all sides” card.

The Serbian President, Tomaslav Nikolić, an ultranationalist in the mold of Slobodan Milošević, called the vote “a great day” for his country. His Bosnian Serb counterpart, Milorad Dodik, described Srebrenica as “the greatest sham of the twentieth century”.  Clearly, the past twenty years have not been a period of self-reflection for the majority of Bosnian Serbs or the Serbian Government. In the face of overwhelming evidence, the Serbs deny participating in what the International Courts have described as crimes of war, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The Bosnian Serbs fear that accepting a modicum of culpability might lead them to a dreaded place-- a dialogue between Muslim and Serb, and the possibility of a new vocabulary in a country where discourse is dead.

The Obama Administration appears to be on the right side of this issue. Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. supported the Srebrenica resolution. A few days later, she and former President Bill Clinton attended the twenty-year remembrance of the massacre at the Srebrenica Memorial at Portočari in Bosnia. Lest we forget the history of the Balkan Wars, the U.S. has some self-reflection to do, as well. For most of the long, four year war, the U.S. Administration maintained that it had no vested interest in the conflict, even as it watched, unmoved, while large scale atrocities against Bosnian Muslim civilians were uncovered. It was not until the eve of the 1996 U.S. Presidential elections that the Clinton Administration brokered the Dayton/Paris Peace Accords. The Accords stopped the fighting, but in separating Bosnia into Serb and Muslim/Croat entities, it legitimized the Serb ethnic cleansing campaign. The division of Bosnia has been an impediment to effective governance, and to any movement toward political reconciliation.

Finally, the Security Council’s rejection of the Srebrenica resolution reminds us of the inherent weakness of the U.N. to prevent massive human rights abuses, as witnessed in Srebrenica, Rwanda and Sri Lanka.  The U.N. has accepted responsibility for its failure to protect Muslims trapped in the Srebrenica enclave, and has implemented an action plan for early detection of human rights abuses, and effective response measures to prevent or end genocide in the committed to develop indicators of potential genocide, and effective actions to prevent or end genocide in the future. The future is now, as minorities are threatened in Myanmar, Sudan, Burundi, Central African Republic, and in Iraq. The critical question is, as it always has been, whether the U.N. member states are willing to act on the ground to protect threatened civilians.

Michael V. Viola, M.D.