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How To Spot A Genocide, What Bosnia Tells Us About Conflict Prevention And Recovering From Trauma

Hannah Scallion

“We are always late to the history in which we live” – The World and All That It Holds Aleksander Hemon

It is 1992, Marshal Tito is dead and much of Yugoslavia is dying with him. Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia have all declared independence and Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia, is whipping up fervent nationalism.

Sarajevo, along with Zvornik, Foca, and Visegrad, become the primary targets of a campaign to ethnically cleanse Muslim Bosniak civilians as Bosnian-Serb forces, backed by Belgrade, launch an offensive. The intent was to destroy, kill and drive Bosnians out of the region and seize land.

It’s a story told before yet bears repeating, especially as victims still battle for recognition. Even as recently as July 2023, Turkey rejected a bill labelling what happened in Srebrenica as a ‘genocide’, and conspiracy theories and ‘alternate histories’ continue to be spread amongst public discourse.

2023’s Srebrenica conference held in the old UN base. A large part of this year’s focus was on genocide denial response and growing extremism.

Lessons for Conflict Prevention: The International Response

Bosnia was a test of the international community’s willingness to act, in particular what Europe would do in the face of its first genocide since World War II.

It is a very difficult thing to say what decisions should have been made. Judgement must be tempered against the superiority of hindsight. However, some things are certainly clearer than others. For one, the intervention that came from the EU and UN was slow and made crucial mistakes. These mistakes give crucial insight for the future and offer potential improvements to systems of intervention. Some have been adopted, like the necessity of clear enforceable mandates, and some have not.

The United States

US views on Bosnia were messy, especially in the beginning, and its policy followed suit. In her book ‘World’s Apart’ Swanee Hunt - former US Ambassador to Austria - describes her great difficulty in drumming up support at the beginning of the conflict. She recalls a conversation with then US Ambassador to France Governor Harriman where, in response to the Bosnia bloodshed, Harriman stated ‘Maybe we should just stay out – like we did in the beginning – and let them kill each other off. After all, there have been conflicts there for centuries. Eventually one side wins’. Harriman was far from alone in this sentiment.

Despite many people in the Tito era identifying as ‘Yugoslavian’, the US initially labelled the conflict as an old feud and an inherent ethnic incompatibility. Serbian President Milošević was initially successful in getting his message of a civil ethnic conflict through. Making it a civil rather than international conflict also helpfully supported an argument of non-intervention for those in the US.

There were plenty more reasons for US reluctance from fears of provoking Russia, respect of state sovereignty, overstraining NATO’s mandate and to quite frankly not knowing the outcome. But the US, along with all other states that were a party to the UN convention on genocide, had assigned themselves a responsibility to prevent and punish genocide. The US acted far too late. The 1995 massacre committed in Srebrenica finally gave the US motive to intervene as it was forced to defend its credibility and make good on its threats concerning aggression against protected areas. It finally made its stand through NATO, announcing reinforcement of the other enclaves Gorazde, Bihac, Sarajevo, and Tuzla in 1995; spearheading an implementation force and providing aggressive airstrikes against Serbian forces.

However, when Newsday’s Roy Gutman was broadcasting news of concentration camps as early as 1992, 1995 was more than a little late for this newfound strength in policy. In Gutman’s words, this was the ‘first genocide in history where journalists were reporting it as it was actually happening, and governments didn't stop it’.

Gutman’s reporting led to the release of 6,000 men. The Dayton agreement, founded by American Diplomat Richard HolBrook, managed to get Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović, and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in the same room and facilitated a diplomatic solution to end the bloodshed. It was a strategic success, capitalising on the pressure Serbia and Milošević were under as Boniask and Croat forces were making strong headway. It included a ceasefire, territorial changes and the creation of a Consociational Democracy. For its short-term goal of preventing further violence, it was a victory. But over time it has slowly become a reminder of inaction and lack of progress. Its conditions, splitting Bosnia into a state comprised of two entities (Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska), and a rotating presidency - one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb, have gone onto to solidify ethno-religious fractures by giving them political legitimacy .

“Dayton was a bandage on a wound. It held, but it needed attention.” – Tim Marshall

The United Nations

Thousands gather for a yearly commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide on July 11th.

“The tragedy of Srebrenica will forever haunt the history of the United Nations.” - United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan

The UN’s initial intervention, chiefly staffed by European soldiers, involved setting up safe enclaves for refugees across Bosnia. This later turned into one of their biggest mistakes.

Srebrenica, one of these enclaves, was more than a tragedy; it was a complete failure. According to the meticulously generated numbers from the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), in the small town of Srebrenica - a town on the border edge of Serbia - 8,000 – 8,100 people went missing in the space of only a few days.

No more than 600 UN personnel were ever present in Srebrenica. The Dutch battalion or ‘Duchbat’, the troops stationed when the enclave fell, were under-armed and under-experienced. According to their own testimonies, they had an ‘impossible task’.

All over Bosnia United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) were more of a hindrance than a solution. They gave leverage to the Bosnian-Serb forces militarily who, to the UN’s embarrassment, took them hostage, falsely used their uniforms to draw out hiding Bosnians and made the EU resistant to using air strikes for fear of their own soldiers getting caught in the crossfire.

The lack of a clear mandate, forcing soldiers to interpret their own role with mixed results combined with a lack of personal and hard power weakened the UNPROFOR and ultimately led to the loss of civilian lives across Bosnia.

The European Union

Pre-war warning signs were there for Europe long before the first bullet flew. Slobodan Milosevic’s rise was a very public one, beginning with Serbia’s siphoning of funds from the Yugoslavia budget and attempted confiscation of Croatian and Slovenian Territorial Defence Forces.

After news of the war broke out the EU had a rather weak response. A 1992 conference in London involving all warring parties failed miserably and the arms embargo on Yugoslavia only served to cripple Bosnia forces. Many EU states initially refused to label Serbia or Croatia as aggressors. As a result, the European response was characterised primarily by economic and diplomatic pressure. This turned out to be not enough to dissuade aggression. By the time the EU started to intervene, it relied heavily on NATO and American forces to facilitate bombing campaigns.

In the decades since, the EU has alienated the Balkans through its adamant refusal to accept their requests to join the EU.

The Future and Healing

Vijećnica, Sarajevo’s city hall almost completely destroyed during the 1992 siege was fully rebuilt although many thousands of books were still lost.

After war, when the guns are gone but the bullet holes remain, survivors must face the mammoth task of creating something new. For some it is simply better to leave. For the remainder, particularly the women and children, they forge forward. They have gone to great efforts to find out what happened to their missing sons, brothers and fathers by creating the world’s largest DNA effort. They provide testimonies in courts, to academics, and the world’s media without certainty they will be believed, or that perpetrators will be brought to justice.

The Bosnian Serbs of 1992 did indeed fail. Muslims still live in Bosnia despite the atrocities committed against them, mosques have been rebuilt and many of the victims have been found and returned to their families despite concentrated efforts to hide their bodies.

However, scars of war remain. Ethnic tensions still remain strong, the complex presidential system still encourages ethnic division and high unemployment rates lead youth elsewhere.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia

The façade of the International Criminal Court (ICC), The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had a large influence on the creation and procedures of the ICC.

In the years since, 161 individuals have been indicted by the International Criminal Court and Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Among these convictions include Ratko Mladić, former Commander of the Main Staff of the Bosnian Serb Army, for genocide and former president Slobodan Milošević for violating international humanitarian law on five counts.

It has been an imperfect process. Milosevic died in detention in 2006, having never served his sentence, a common pattern among those convicted. Court processes were lengthy, and defendants' appeals made them even lengthier. Many perpetrators remain free and some politicians use the convictions to legitimise claims of western interference. Nevertheless, the court gave legitimacy to victims, offering the label of genocide and erasing the political immunity state leaders are often afforded.

Where truth is integral healing, the added weight of international courts validating witness accounts is at least one small step forward. The ICTY offers a path in providing justice, already many other courts set up to face other crimes against humanity have followed its example including crimes in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Timor Leste.

Current politics continue to make peace tenuous, but for those preserving truth, remembering the dead and finding coexistence with a group who refuses reconciliation, the balancing act of holding it together continues.


Hannah Scallion is a final year student completing a Bachelor of International Studies with a specialisation in Global Security at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. After working in abroad in Spain, she has developed a strong interest in European security and diplomacy and is interested in undertaking an internship in foreign affairs.



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