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GENOCIDE IN EUROPE: The Srebrenica Massacre And The Krstic Verdict


Monday, Aug. 06, 2001

Six years after the atrocities at issue, and a little more than a half-century after the Holocaust, the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has handed down its first verdict of genocide. Ruling last week in the trial of a former Bosnian Serb army commander, General Radislav Krstic, the court found the defendant guilty of the murder of more than 7,000 Muslim men near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

"General Krstic, you agreed to evil," said the trial judge who announced the verdict. His language carefully summed up the court’s conclusions in the case, for the war crimes tribunal did not find that Krstic played any role in ordering the execution of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in July 1995.

Indeed, the court explicitly acknowledged that Krstic was a professional soldier who, as a matter of personal preference, would not have been involved in a plan of extermination. Yet the court found that Krstic knew that the slaughter was occurring and chose to assist in it by providing the men needed to carry out executions. He may have been, at best, a reluctant participant in genocide, but he was still a participant.

The Crimes Committed at Srebrenica

The slaughter of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica is recognized as the gravest atrocity to take place in Europe since the Nazi genocide. In the nine days from July 10 to 19, 1995, thousands of military-aged Bosnian men were taken prisoner, detained in inhumane conditions, and then systematically executed.

Survivors of the mass executions who testified at Krstic's trial spoke of, among other horrors, men being blindfolded, lined up, and shot in the back; of being crammed in a warehouse into which grenades were thrown; and of seeing fields filled with corpses. Forensic investigators charged with exhuming the bodies, a task that is still ongoing, have so far found at least 448 blindfolds at the gravesites, and a nearly equal number of wire ligatures used to tie victims' hands behind their back.

In addition to the mass slaughter of military-aged men, some 25,000 Bosnian Muslim women, children, and elderly people were transferred out of Srebrenica by bus. The end result of the killings and deportations was, of course, the "ethnic cleansing" of the region.

Translated into legal terms, these acts can be described as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

Passivity before Evil

The events of Srebrenica were not only appalling in their brutality. They also stand as a clear demonstration of the contempt that the Bosnian Serb authorities held for international public opinion and, in particular, for the insistence of Western leaders that "the warring factions" in Bosnia had to abide by humanitarian rules.

The Srebrenica massacre occurred near the end of the conflict in Bosnia. During the more than three years of war that preceded the killings, the Western powers had frequently threatened to take decisive action to stop Bosnian Serb atrocities, but had manifestly failed to do so. The gap between words and actions led many critics to suggest that the West merited — or even invited — the Serbs' contempt.

From this perspective, the tribunal's conclusion regarding General Krstic's culpability may be illuminating. As noted, the court did not find that Krstic ordered the killing of Bosnian Muslims, or even that he specifically desired their deaths. His active participation in the atrocities consisted of providing men and resources, while being aware of the ends for which they were used.

Besides condemning these actions, the court also specifically criticized Krstic's inaction, noting that he could have intervened to save thousands of lives. Stating that Krstic "remained largely passive in the face of his knowledge of what was going on," the court ruled that his passivity did not extinguish his culpability.

"Safe Area" Srebrenica

Further attesting to the Bosnian Serbs' utter disregard for international opinion was the fact that Srebrenica was, in 1993, declared a "safe area" by the U.N. Security Council. Although no one was entirely certain what the appellation meant, in concrete terms, it should at least have meant that the civilian population was protected from extermination. (On this point, interestingly, the tribunal's judgment notes that the indictment against Krstic did not allege that the military invasion of the "safe area" itself violated international law.)

The cruel ironies of Srebrenica even extend to the logic of the war crimes tribunal itself. In the resolution creating the tribunal, passed just one month after the resolution establishing the Srebrenica "safe area," the Security Council stated its firm determination to put a stop to the atrocities being committed in Bosnia. It explained, in particular, that the establishment of an international tribunal would go far toward the achievement of this aim.

Among the many lessons of Srebrenica may be the discouraging notion that justice is not necessarily the strongest of disincentives. But then, everyone knew that at the time, too.

Srebrenica Now

The trial court found that the goal of the Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica was to rid the area of Muslims for all time. Were its members to visit Srebrenica today, they would recognize that, so far at least, the Serbs have been successful.

According to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Srebrenica remains a ghost town. Although it now houses a large number of Bosnian Serb refugees who fled other areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina, its former inhabitants have yet to return.

The main source of survivors' fear of returning lies in the fact that many men involved in the murders live undisturbed in the town. The war crimes tribunal should, in the view of many Srebrenica survivors, arrest and prosecute not only the commanders responsible for abuses, but also the lower-level extremists who carried them out.

Despite Krstic's conviction, these survivors believe that it is far too soon to speak of justice in Srebrenica.

Joanne Mariner is deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. Her previous columns on Kosovo, Milosevic, and the War Crimes Tribunal can be found in’s archive. The views expressed in her columns are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights Watch.

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