The Srebrenica massacre, in which some seven thousand Bosnian Muslim males were executed by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995 in the Yugoslav War, is widely recognized as the worst single war crime committed in Europe since World War II. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has condemned the crime as an act of genocide. Srebrenica has also become synonymous with a great failure of the international community. Neither the protection of United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolutions nor the presence of a Dutch peacekeeping battalion deterred the Bosnian Serb attack on the "safe area" or prevented the subsequent massacre. Not until June 11, 2004, did the Bosnian Serb government, responding to strong international pressure, release a forty-two-page report admitting that police and army units under its control had "participated" in the massacre, and that government forces had undertaken extensive measures to "hide the crime by removing bodies."
Srebrenica is a little town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina that was bypassed in the Serb offensive in the opening stages of the war in March and April 1992. A renewed offensive in 1993 led to UN Security Council Resolution 819 (April 16, 1993), which declared the town and its surroundings a "safe area." Some 40,000 Muslim refugees from all over eastern Bosnia were surrounded in the isolated enclave. On July 6, 1995, as part of the attempt to "clean up the map" in preparation for ending the war, Bosnian Serb forces launched a carefully prepared attack, which led to the fall of the enclave on July 11. Approximately 15,000 Muslim men tried to break out and reach Bosnian government–held territory in central Bosnia. Thousands were captured and executed in a well-organized operation, lasting slightly more than a week. Some 25,000 people sought refuge around the main UN compound. Males were separated from women and children. While the 23,000 women and children were deported, approximately 2,000 men were taken away and executed.
The massacre reveals a pattern that was common to Serb strategy and tactics in the war. Srebrenica is a clear instance of the strategy of ethnic cleansing practiced by the Serbs since 1991. This strategy aimed to create an ethnically homogenous Serb state by forcing non-Serbs to flee as the result of acts of demonstrative atrocity against civilians. In the atrocities, men were objects of special attention. Their removal in particular was deemed to render communities incapable of further resistance and prevent the return of the surviving population to their original homes.
Nonetheless, the scale of the massacre was uncommon. Why did the Bosnian Serbs attempt to kill all the men from Srebrenica? The official Dutch investigation concluded that it was a combination of anger and frustration at the surprise escape attempt by the men, as well as of a desire to revenge the vicious attacks by Bosnian Muslims from the enclave in the previous years. A more convincing explanation, also accepted by the Appeals Chamber in the Krstic trial, is that the genocide would remove a cross-section of men from all over eastern Bosnia and thereby secure the whole region from effective Muslim irredentism. A related contentious issue is the timing of the decision to massacre the men. The official Dutch investigation claims that the decision was taken after the fall of the enclave and hence the genocide was a largely improvised action. Others argue that the decision was taken much earlier and thus the genocide was a premeditated act.
Soon after the event, the ICTY indicted prominent Bosnian Serb leaders for their crimes. In November 1995 the first individuals to be indicted were Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Serb Army commander, General Ratko Mladic. Although as of mid-2004 they had avoided capture, the former Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, appeared before the Tribunal and was accused of complicity in the genocide (although the evidence linking him with Srebrenica was slight). Many of the "second echelon" of lesser military figures with direct involvement were also tried. A member of one of the execution squads, Drazen Erdemovic, was convicted in 1996. More importantly, the commander of the Bosnian Serb Army Corps that controlled the area, General Radislav Krstic, was sentenced Page 989 | Top of Article to forty-six years in 2001 (a sentence that was reduced to thirty-five years on appeal in 2004). A number of his subordinate officers were convicted in late 2003. The massacre was committed by relatively small numbers of troops and guided primarily by Security and Special Police personnel. The most senior officers were Colonels Ljubisa Beara and Ljubomir Borovcanin. They, like their commanding officer General Mladic, remained at large as of mid-2004.
The evidence in the trials was based on forensic proof, witness statements, and documents. This has led to the judgment that the Srebrenica massacre constituted genocide. The exhumation of bodies reveals that many thousands of Muslim men died not as the result of combat, but of large-scale executions. Moreover, the victims were not exclusively of military age, but included boys, old men, and invalids. Finding witnesses has posed a problem. Very few Muslims survived the massacres and few Serb suspects have admitted guilt. Controversially, the prosecution reverted to plea-bargaining. Trial judges, however, have expressed great reservations about this practice as it suggests that individual punishment for some of the most heinous crimes possible can be avoided by testifying against others.
Documentary evidence has been critical in all trials. A key part is formed by the military archive of the Bosnian Serb armed forces that was captured by North American Treaty Organization (NATO) troops after the war ended. This archive included, for example, the plan of attack and much administrative material that revealed which units and personnel were involved in the Srebrenica operation. A second important documentary trail involved intercepts of radio communications of Bosnian Serb forces made by Bosnian Muslim military intelligence. These intercepts played a major role in the Krstic trial as they tended to be more explicit about what actually took place than the written documents. On appeal, however, many intercepts were judged sufficiently ambiguous to allow for weaker interpretations benefiting the defendant. Hence, General Krstic's conviction for being a "principal perpetrator" of genocide was reduced to one of an "aider and abettor."
Unsucccessful Humanitarian Intervention
Srebrenica is often regarded as the emblematic failure of the humanitarian intervention in the former Yugoslavia. The Dutch UN battalion that was there to protect the "safe area" has become a particular focus of criticism. The unit appeared to have consciously allowed itself to be reduced to the role of impotent bystander while the genocide was committed. Despite undoubted shortcomings, much of the criticism is misplaced. In the end, Srebrenica fell because of a lack of will on the part of the international community to use force in defense of human rights. The weak and ambiguous mandate of the 1993 UN Security Council Resolution that made Srebrenica a "safe area" already exemplified this. It was confirmed by a string of other actions, ranging from the unwillingness to back up the implementation of peace plans by force, if necessary, to the half-hearted attempt to use NATO air power in May and June 1995 (which resulted in extensive hostage taking by the Bosnian Serbs and a swift capitulation by the international community). Within this political context, the behavior of the Dutch troops and, more broadly, the UNPROFOR mission in the former Yugoslavia, becomes understandable. They were expected to avoid actions that led to UN casualties and might involve the international community in a shooting war. Added into this mix was a persistent disbelief that the Bosnian Serbs would dare take the whole safe area and commit genocide. The shock of Srebrenica did directly lead to the armed intervention of August and September 1995 that resulted in the Dayton Peace Agreements being signed the following November. It also led to a much firmer stance, and ultimately armed intervention, over Kosovo in 1999.
Gow, James (2003). The Serbian Project and Its Adversaries: A Strategy of War Crimes London: Hurst.
Honig, Jan Willem, and Norbert Both (1997). Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, revised edition. New York: Penguin.
Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. (April 2002). "Srebrenica, a 'Safe' Area: Reconstruction, Background, Consequences and Analyses of the Fall of a Safe Area." Available from http://www.srebrenica.nl .
Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 53/55. (November 15, 1999). The Fall of Srebrenica. Available from: http://www.un.org/peace/srebrenica.pdf .
Wood, Nicholas (June 12, 2004). "Bosnian Serbs Admit Responsibility for the Massacre of 7,000." The New York Times.
Jan Willem Honig