Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, right, enters the courtroom of the UN's Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, Nov. 3, 2009. He was indicted in 1995.
"Karadzic Trial a Reminder of EU Responsibilities"
Op-Ed, The Scotsman
December 1, 2009
Author: Azeem Ibrahim, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2008–2010
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
AS EUROPE passes the Lisbon treaty and begins the messy process of reform designed to give it a more coherent voice on the world stage, it would do well to remember how devastating the effects of European inactivity can be. The story of the Bosnian war in the early Nineties is salutary.
After 15 years, Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is finally facing trial in the Hague for war crimes, although he yesterday filed a motion challenging the legitimacy of the UN war crimes tribunal prosecuting him.
Many have waited years for the day. Last August, a handful of UN soldiers stood in the snow in front of a bleak housing block while others, acting on a tip-off that it had been Karadzic's hiding place for a decade or more, searched the place.
Inside, they found a bearded, Santa Claus-like figure, known at the local hospital and tavern as Dr David, a psychiatric holistic health guru and mystic.
This was the same man who, as the war started in 1991, had said, "in just a couple of days, Sarajevo will be gone and there will be 500,000 dead, in one month Muslims will be annihilated in Bosnia and Herzegovina".
Now, shaved and looking like the familiar demagogic Serb leader of the 1990s, he stands accused of being ultimately responsible for a catalogue of unspeakable war crimes.
Their brutality is comparable to anything Europe saw in the 20th century, but all the more shocking for coming after four decades of European vows of "never again".
Karadzic is accused of 11 counts of genocide, responsibility for the siege of Sarajevo, the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs and the seizure of more than 200 UN peacekeepers as hostages.
Most chillingly, he is accused of being ultimately responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, when more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed in cold blood by Bosnian Serbs.
As we once again become accustomed to seeing his face in the news and hearing updates on his case at the UN Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, many will be tempted to see the crimes of which he is accused as just more violence from a violent region, and dismiss the whole Bosnian war as a local Balkan problem, for which blame can be confined to a part of the map which we have associated with violence for centuries.
But that is a self-serving half-truth. The other half is much more disturbing: we — mainstream Europe and its foreign policy establishment of the time — could have stopped the worst of his excesses, but decided not to.
In 1992 the nascent Bosnian republic was set upon by Serb forces. Soon the UN was hearing accounts of Bosnians being rounded up into camps and beaten with metal rods and wooden clubs, men being castrated and women raped and mutilated.
This was mass-killing on Europe's doorstep, but when US president Bill Clinton pressed Francois Mitterand and others to join America to intervene to stop it, he was shocked to find the French president more worried about the emergence of a Bosnian state than preventing more massacres.
Europe could have helped in other ways. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, the majority of the country's armories and barracks were in Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia. This gave the Serbs a military advantage against the Croats and Bosniaks.
The Bosniaks needed arms if they were to defend themselves. Ordinarily, acquiring them would not have been a problem. But Europe and America prevented them from buying any, an embargo that effectively locked the Bosniaks' military disadvantage in place.
The US Senate called on Mr Clinton to end the arms embargo and persuade European countries to do the same. Mr Clinton recorded in his autobiography how Europe — particularly France and Britain — refused to lift the embargo that would have given the Bosniaks a better chance of defending themselves.
But Europe could have helped in still other ways. It was clear that the Serbs wanted to completely clear the territory they controlled of Muslims: Slobodan Milosevic's supporters destroyed every mosque in the territory they controlled.
In his book Unfinest Hour: How Britain Helped to Destroy Bosnia, Cambridge professor Brendan Simms writes that the European foreign policy establishment went on to try to prevent armed protection for humanitarian convoys.
They even tried to prevent the international community providing relief for enclaves of Bosnian refugees, and even a war crimes tribunal.
Prof Simms quotes a former Polish prime minister, who says that whenever there was a likelihood of effective action, the British foreign policy establishment intervened to prevent it. Most inexplicable of all was the argument that there was no need for Britain to let any of the Bosnian refugees have sanctuary here.
The arguments that force would not work against the Serbs was eventually crushed — it was Nato strikes that eventually precipitated the negotiations that ended the war. But it was too late for the innocent victims who had been beaten, clubbed, raped or shot.
Needless to say, this has not been forgotten by those affected by it and their relatives.
One recent report from the court in the Hague depicted scores of elderly Bosnian Muslim women sitting in the gallery, listening to the translation of the evidence through headphones, weeping or staring silently into the middle distance. One told a reporter that this trial was "for the politicians and the leaders who gave the green light. Shame on them".
Those leaders were our leaders. When we read about Karadzic's crimes in the coming months, we should not forget Europe's failure to prevent them.
I am afraid that neither Europe's foreign policy establishment nor its people have taken on board the consequences of our inactivity in the early Nineties.
For all Europe's moves towards closer unity since then — Maastricht, Lisbon, and so on — if we were presented with the same challenge to our foreign policy ethics tomorrow, would we respond differently?
Azeem Ibrahim is a research scholar at the International Security Program at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a world fellow at Yale and a former reservist in the British Parachute Regiment.
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