Half a lifetime ago, on a hot July afternoon, I sat in the living room of international war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, glued to the screen as Dutch television newscasters announced another dreary episode in the ethnic conflict of the former Yugoslavia. This time it was the capture of a small Bosnian municipality—the obscure town of Srebrenica—by heavily armed Bosnian Serb militia. As the newscast unspooled, Dutch peacekeeping troops with blue United Nations berets were seen milling about, inertly observing the handover of command of the U.N. “safe area” in Srebrenica to its new Serb masters. The star of the show was a stocky Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, born in Montenegro, who used Belgrade’s money and materiel to mount an attack on the Drina Valley enclave, seeking to consolidate Serb-controlled territory across the river from Milosevic’s rump state. Any chance for resistance was lost when Holland’s defense minister phoned the U.N. chief in Bosnia to protest the thought of using NATO air power to deter the Serbs. The Dutch troops had also stripped the usual complement of TOW missiles from their armored personnel carriers before deploying, in deference to U.N. policy to avoid “provocation.” And according to at least one eyewitness, Dutch troops pushed the displaced Muslim civilians outside the gates of the United Nations military encampment as the Serbs arrived. Dutch troops watched as Serb soldiers loaded Srebrenica’s women and very young children onto buses for transport back to Muslim territory. And they watched as Bosnian Muslim men and boys were separated and taken off in trucks as captive prisoners of war. Or so we thought.
This was professional business for Judge Goldstone, a South African newly arrived in the international arena after helping to reform the apartheid state’s intelligence agencies through an internationalized investigation that won the gratitude of Nelson Mandela. The task at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague—to which he was appointed with high expectations though he was to depart two years later—was to enforce the laws of war and deter future war crimes in the Balkans, as the ragged and bitter conflict continued to rage among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims in Bosnia even after the fighting subsided in Slovenia and Croatia. Srebrenica was a small market town crowded with Muslim refugees from the surrounding farms and villages who hoped for protection from the Bosnian war’s cruel violence.
A U.N. Security Council resolution proclaimed this Muslim locale, and several others, to be “safe areas” even amidst territory controlled by Bosnian Serb militia. Many people believed this promise of protection, for the currency of multilateral peacekeeping had not yet been devalued by a decade’s cascade of subsequent failures. Certainly the idea of a safe area was well established, dating from the rules of war accepted even in the First World War—namely, that an open city should not be bombed or destroyed by enemy troops when it was “undefended,” for what would be the point? In the nineteenth century view, resorting to war was not illegal as such or even exceptional in the carnal pursuit of national ambition, so why should any war suffice as a reason to destroy the urban cultural achievements of a common European civilization and the prerequisites of decent life? Destruction of an open city would be pointlessly cruel and unrelated to victory in the war. And of course, civilians had to be treated fairly.
But there were ample warning signs of the potential hazards awaiting the civilians in U.N. safe areas in the Drina Valley. Despite repeated requests, the U.N. refused to demarcate the outer boundaries of the Srebrenica safe zone, and Bosnian Muslim fighters (in particular, a hard-bitten commander named Naser Oric) used the movable limits of the zone as a platform for launching attacks against nearby Serb villages in the area. And as a further invitation to mischief, the U.N. troop strength in the town was limited. When the use of safe areas was first proposed in the U.N. Security Council as a way to protect refugees “in place”—avoiding the need for them to scatter across Europe—Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali had estimated that 34,000 troops were needed. The Security Council (with U.S. concurrence) authorized 7,400.
It was a time of wide-eyed post-Cold War innocence, hard to describe to anyone who did not live through it. Blue berets were supposed to have power almost as amulets in preventing violence, even without firing a shot. Who, after all, would dare to defy the world community? The answer could have been found, of course, in the memoir of Sir Brian Urquhart, a British hero of the Second World War who served with Ralph Bunche in the Congo in 1960. As a locomotive with U.N. troops aboard steamed towards Katanga, one local tribesman asked, “L’ONU? C’est quel tribu?” Which tribe is the United Nations? A fine question, indeed.
But after the end of the Cold War, U.N. romanticism revived, and the petals had not yet left the rose at the time of Bosnia. The Wilsonian dream of a league of nations was supposed to be fulfilled, this time for real, and the grim realities of low-level insurgencies were forgotten.
And then, of course, the prevailing ethos was Hippocratic, if not hypocritical. U.N. peacekeeping operations were designed to avoid the use of military force, if at all possible, even though field personnel were dressed like soldiers. In the view of the U.N.’s wartime comptrollers, even if a U.N. armored personnel carrier was attacked by a Serb tank, it could respond only while the shooter’s engine was hot, and only if a forward spotter could direct the shot. Too often, U.N. peacekeepers were used as a concierge service, tasked to deliver food to isolated Bosnian villages, but instructed to ignore the carnage in the vicinity. Sometimes pity moved a multilateral heart to evacuate a few old people. But generally speaking, civilians were not to be rescued, only fed. The war was likened to a football match where the referee had no stake. And then there was the issue of numbers—the troops deployed to protect the civilians gathered in the safe zones of Srebrenica, Tuzla, Zepa, Goradze, Sarajevo, and Bihac were far too few. Perhaps Boutros-Ghali should have pulled the plug and announced the mission was unachievable. But he went ahead with a drastically reduced force.
What then happened in Srebrenica was one of the greatest stains on Europe’s moral history since the Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Serb commanders proudly announced that for centuries past, they had saved Europe from the military progress of the “Turks” into Europe—and any Muslim in Srebrenica was to be likened to the Janissary troops of the Ottoman Empire.
After the enclave’s handover, Ratko Mladic, acting as the self-annointed savior of the Bosnian Serbs, loaded the 8,000 captured Srebrenica men and boys onto trucks. They were driven into the forest, lined up in small groups, and executed by gunfire. One young man, later tried for several of the murders, reported that his commander had threatened him with death when he hesitated to take part. Serb bulldozers were used to attempt to mask the mass graves, but the sites remained visible from the air with NATO’s infrared photography. And it was, indeed, these rancid executions that finally pushed the West to intervene in the Bosnian war in a more robust way, using air power and a Croatian military advance in Western Slavonia to force Serbia to the bargaining table.
For their crimes, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Serb military commander Ratko Mladic were indicted in the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The peace accord negotiated in Dayton, Ohio in 1995 brought an uneasy end to the fighting in Bosnia, but the ultimate author of ethnic strife in Yugoslavia, federation president Slobodan Milosevic, was allowed to play a starring role at the peace conference in exchange for calling a halt to the war he started. And even then, the NATO forces that enforced the Dayton peace claimed to have no obligation under the Fourth Geneva Convention to search for war crimes suspects, for fear this would unsettle the locals. There were even reports that some NATO forces chose to inform the Serb authorities of their movements in the wreckage of Bosnian territory to allow the wanted men to stay out of plain sight.
And thus things remained until Milosevic was finally arrested in Serbia following his role in starting another war in Kosovo in 1998. It took an extraordinarily brave young prime minister of the Serb republic, Zoran Djindjic, to carry out that arrest and ship Milosevic to The Hague for trial. Despite some fine British and American trial work, the prosecution erred by insisting that all his crimes should be tried in one endless proceeding, and by the end of four years both the presiding judge and the defendant were dead, with no verdict taken. Karadzic remained at large for another decade, until he was found living near Belgrade disguised as an alternative health worker. Mladic is the last to be unearthed, and the completion of these two trials is seen as prerequisite to any dignified conclusion to the work of the international criminal tribunal for Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, Serbia hopes to qualify for a slow-burn track for candidacy in the European Union in order to outgrow its recent past.
Why is this history worth recalling around the Fourth of July? For one, it’s the calendar. Wittingly or not, with his name sounding like a Popeye villain, Serb commander Ratko Mladic chose the season of our national holiday to try to embarrass NATO and steamroll the protected population of Srebrenica. It is one thing to choose your fights, and another to be mocked. The rebirth of a Europe whole and free under NATO’s fifty-year guardianship was not superintended in order to allow genocidal bullying by a local thug.
And secondly, perhaps, Bosnia’s events recall the great virtues of the democratic independence of America gained two centuries ago. As the offshore balancer, historically aloof from Europe’s wars and remote from the Christian-Turkish confrontation in the crucible of the Balkans, the United States has nonetheless been available when circumstances permit to make a timely difference in the fate of peoples who are at death’s door. The democratic state created some two centuries ago—through a brash declaration of independence—more than once has given a second wind to an exhausted Europe. In celebrating our own independence, we are also marking two centuries in which we have served as guardians of the values of the West. For universities that are just now permitting ROTC to reenter the college yard, it is worth recalling the consanguinity of liberty and valor.