Accountability and Responsibility: 20 years since the Srebrenica Massacre

Srebrenica. (c) Michael Th Johnson, 2007.

Srebrenica. (c) Michael Th Johnson, 2005.

Accountability and Responsibility.

These days, we use these terms frequently in references to war crimes and crimes against humanity; international humanitarian and criminal law, human rights, the progress of the ICC, and our foreign policy choices in the Middle-East and elsewhere.

However how we define these terms has evolved greatly since 1994, due in large part to what happened in Rwanda that Spring, and in Eastern Bosnia during the following next summer.

Srebrenica. (c) Michael Th Johnson, 2007.

Srebrenica. (c) Michael Th Johnson, 2005.

As easy as it would be to believe otherwise, the Rwanda Genocide that escalated in April 1994 and the genocide in the region of Srebrenica in July of 1995 did not occur out of an otherwise calm and peaceful world. They were the culmination of years of visible crisis and open conflict that had caused great human suffering to many innocents and ordinary people in many regions of the world.

Furthermore, they occurred in the age of never again commitments from holocaust survivors. While we were inaugurating the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington committed to the concept of vigilance against such atrocities, new atrocities were happening right in front of us. Prior to these memorialized dates, those same victims and survivors in Rwanda and Eastern Bosnia had suffered deprivation and abuse that was widespread, public, and notorious to everyone who wished to see and listen. Few of us did – although it was frequently visible to all on the nightly new.

These anniversaries are significant because these are the dates and events on, and about, which we finally focused our attention and indignation.

When our world did finally react due to the extraordinary work of a handful of dedicated journalists and advocates, our governments responded to the demand for peace by putting the peace settlement in direct conflict, with the demands of justice. That was what was easiest for the international community and particularly Richard Holbrook and the US Administration. Unfortunately for the victims and survivors that decision was not made for them. After all it really was not about them: in Bosnia, the Dayton Accord cemented in power throughout the region the criminals who had conducted the war because that was the best solution for London, Paris, Bonn, New York and Washington.

That same agreement limited the discretion of local courts to prosecute those criminals themselves without international approval, which was sometimes years in coming. Our establishment of war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to prosecute those most responsible, and to contribute to the peace and reconciliation of the region, was poorly planned, poorly integrated into a national or regional strategy for accountability and reconciliation, and even more poorly executed by legal professionals who did not have models to follow in doing so.

Twenty years later the resources devoted to maintaining the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICT (yes, it is still in operation,) are tens of millions of dollars a year greater than they were in 2005 when transfer of jurisdiction back to the regional courts was touted to the Security Council by the then Chief Prosecutor and the Courts President as the completion strategy for the ICTY and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) – evidence of their success as representatives of the international community. But then, as now, the issue is not about them but about the people of the regions where the horrors were perpetrated, in towns like Srebrenica and Aleppo.

Srebrenica. (c) Michael Th Johnson, 2007.

Srebrenica. (c) Michael Th Johnson, 2005.

Unfortunately, as the Mothers of Srebrenica continue to call for justice, the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was inaugurated exactly ten years ago to take over much of the responsibility of the ICTY, is struggling as it was in 2005 for funding and political independence.

Kosovo is still a European protectorate, and the rekindling of violence is not impossible in the foreseeable future in a still divided Bosnia.

And in the years since, the list of atrocities has grown. The treatment of Gaza is an outrage to international law and human dignity. Tens of thousands of victims have died in Syria because it is too hard for us to figure out who are the good guys who should get our support and who are not.

What then do we have to memorialize on this twentieth anniversary of Srebrenica. Certainly we have the victims and their survivors who deserve perpetual recognition and honor for their sacrifice. We do not do that often enough, or with enough understanding of why we should account for such atrocities.

Srebrenica. (c) Michael Th Johnson, 2007.

Srebrenica. (c) Michael Th Johnson, 2005.

Beyond the speeches and services, do we not owe them the commitment to prevent such things from being repeated? Do we not owe them the recognition that it was because we believed that they were not equal to our sons and daughters. That we declined to commit our sons and daughters to protect them when they needed us? Should we discuss the idea that we might have sacrificed the people of Srebrenica and for a political agreement on territorial division under Dayton? What lessons can we take 20 years on from the events of that summer in 1995?

For one thing, we now have the mechanisms for accountability more firmly established in international law and jurisprudence, although it is still fragile, flawed, and in the early stages of evolution when compared to more mature, national justice systems. This is true even though an American administration that supported the application of that law to the Balkans and Rwanda, openly ridiculed its clarity and application to Iraq, international terrorism, Guantanamo and torture. The international standards for the fair administration of justice established by the ICTY and ICTR are now available to guide our policy options in response to future atrocities, even though that same American administration as well as the current one in Washington, have openly sought to undermine the International Criminal Court, which was built on precisely those standards.

One thing that we have learned is that memorializing victims is not as important as preventing their suffering in the first place. Rwandas and Bosnias suffering could have been mitigated, if not prevented entirely, by our decisive and timely action as a community of nations. But President Bill Clinton said that he did not fully realize at the time what was happening in Rwanda in those one hundred days beginning in April. The then Congressman Charlie Bass said that he did not believe that constituents in the small but politically important US State of New Hampshire would be willing to have Americans come home in body bag?s to help protect and heal Bosnians. We let them get away with that and we still do. The reaction of Dutch soldiers at the safe area of Srebrenica and the American and French air assets that supported them would seem to echo that sentiment.

We who live in Western democracies deserve the leaders we have, and the victims of genocide often deserve better. One of the major lessons to take from Srebrenica is that the priority is and should be the fate of the victims, not our comfort or convenience or political interests. Our mandate was to contribute to peace and reconciliation in the region of the former Yugoslavia, along with holding those most responsible for the crimes committed accountable for their actions.

We in the international community failed miserably in the first because it would have required that we hold the people of the region first in our priorities.

We have not fully succeeded in the second because we knew so little about the dynamics of tyranny, and focused only on evidence of the brutality that had disturbed us, and not its causes. Those most responsible were not the foot soldiers, but those who armed, organized, and let them loose on the people of Bosnia through their political power structures and institutions. The New York Times demanded that Americans should Prosecute the Torturers and their Bosses in a December 2014 editorial. They have not held anyone accountable even after nearly seven years under a different administration in Washington. Those most responsible in both Bosnia and the United States have, to too great a degree, escaped real accountability under the rule of law that the international community has promoted for such accountability.

Srebrenica. (c) Michael Th Johnson, 2007.

Srebrenica. (c) Michael Th Johnson, 2005.

On this 20th anniversary of the slaughter of the innocent in Eastern Bosnia, who will be determined most responsible, and held accountable, for the crimes committed in Eastern Congo and in the next outbreak of hatred in the Balkans or Gaza or Iraq? What is the accountability for those who failed to prevent the preventable? Since these crimes are not inevitable, should their prevention command our attention during this month if we truly wish to honor those who suffered in Eastern Bosnia during the summer of 1995?

Michael Johnson

About Michael Johnson

Chairman & Director of Professional Accountability of the Institute for Justice Sector Development, as well as a Senior Fellow for Law and Missions in the Deputy Director's Office of DCAF. Full Portfolio and Contact Information →

One Comment

  1. Powerful indictment and warning.

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