Could the massacre of Srebrenica have been prevented?

The role of the international community

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

17 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Content table

I. Introduction

II. Was Srebrenica a genocide?
1. A definition of genocide
2. The evolution of the term “genocide” since the Second World War
3. The Tribunal of The Hague
4. Is Srebrenica really a genocide?

III. Could Srebrenica have been avoided?
1. No lessons learned from Rwanda?
2. The failing of the UN and the international community
3. False promises and small efforts

IV. Conclusion

V. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Located on the western Balkan Peninsula of Europe, in the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Srebrenica as well as Sarajevo, the capital, are part of Bosnia, the northern and central part of the country, whereas Herzegovina is situated in the south and south-eastern parts of the country (Lampe et al.). Srebrenica, whose name comes from the Serbo-Croatian word “srebro” which means silver, a reference to the silver that can be found in the surrounding mountains, can be located more concretely in the eastern part of Bosnia (Rohde iv). During the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s, this small city became sadly known to the world for the atrocities which happened there in July 1995: Srebrenica got captured by the Serbian army who then massacred more than 7.000 men and boys from Muslim belief in only a few days, and this even though the city and surroundings of Srebrenica had been called out as being a “safe area” of the United Nations who were by then still present in Srebrenica (Both 181). To understand how it came to this dark moment of history, it is important to understand what happened during the 1990s in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It started in 1991, when Croatia and Slovenia as first countries wanted to gain their independency from Yugoslavia, until then a country composed of different states (Allcock and Lampe), which led to fighting between the newly declared independent countries and Yugoslavia, which was mainly dominated by Serbs. Due to this, the United Nation Security Council launched the United Nations Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia, better known as UNPROFOR, based on Resolution 743 and which was supposed to force a peace agreement between Croatia and Yugoslavia (Lang 191). In 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina wanted their independency too and the conflict in Yugoslavia escalated quickly. It started with the decision of Germany and the United States to recognize the country as an independent state, a decision which created conflicts between different people living there, especially between the Bosnian Serbs (also known as Bosniacs), the Bosnian Muslims and the Bosnian Croats (191). Soon after this, the Serbs took siege of Sarajevo, led by Radovan Karadzic, and started to persecute and kill many Bosnian Muslims and some Bosnian Croats, and even sanctions from the UN could not stop the conflict from going on (191). In early 1993 then, Muslims and Croats, who had until then been allies against the Serbs, started fighting against each other as well (Reuters Staff). In April of the same year, the UN declared some cities as being safe havens, based on Resolution 819 from the Council, which were thought to be places where the population of the concerned towns would be in at least a little bit of safety and where they would receive help from humanitarian organizations (Haspeslagh 1). Srebrenica became a declared safe haven at this moment, after the town had been taken into control of military troops of the Serbs, and even though the Bosnian Muslims managed to take back the control of the city by May 1992, the conflicts going on around Srebrenica went on for the upcoming three years (Lang 191). In March 1993, the Bosnian Serbs had reconquered Srebrenica and its surroundings again, and the people of the town were so afraid to be left abandoned by the international community that they even took the Commander of UNPROFOR, the French General Philippe Morillon, as a hostage to put pressure on foreign forces (191-192). After the release of the commander, this same one assured to the population that they “were under United Nations protection and that he would not abandon them”, which was also one of the reasons the UN assigned some places as being safe havens as mentioned above (192). Once the city became such a place, it had to hand over all the weapons present there to the responsible people from the UN mission who were deployed in Srebrenica, thus even though the division of the Vojska Republike Srspke (VRS, the Bosnian Serb Army), the Drina Corps, did not let go of the stranglehold it was keeping over the city and its surroundings (Nettelfield 78). The town continued to stay isolated from the outside and only some convoys of humanitarian aid succeeded in reaching it over the upcoming two years, until March 1995, when the president Radovan Karadzic ordered to completely cut off Srebrenica from any external convoy (Reuters Staff). In July of the same year happened the massacre referred to above. This essay will, by considering the events which happened prior to the massacre of Srebrenica and the fact that troops of the United Nations had already been deployed in Bosnia since 1992 and had collected many information, try to give an answer to following question: Could the massacre of Srebrenica have been avoided and what was the role of the international community?

In the attempt of finding a correct answer, the essay will be divided into two parts, the first one answering the question if Srebrenica can even be considered as being a genocide in the correct meaning of the word and the second part being about the avoidance of the tragedy which happened there.

II. Was Srebrenica a genocide?

1. A definition of Genocide

The word genocide comes from the Greek “genos”, which means race or tribe, and the word “cide” which means killing (Genocide - Background). It was first mentioned by Raphaël Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe from 1944 (Background). This special term was developed by Lemkin as a response especially to the Holocaust from the Second World War, but it also referred to other actions which had happened throughout the history against certain groups of people (Background). The definition of genocide is given in article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as well as in article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and describes a genocide as following:

Genocide means any following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

This definition contains two very important elements, which are 1. Mental elements, with the phrase “with intent to destroy [… ] a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” and 2. Physical elements, which are the five actual acts listed above, from (a) to (e). Even though it can be difficult to prove the actual intent of perpetrators, it is important for constituting an actual case of genocide that the perpetrators have the “intent to destroy […] a national, ethnical, racial or religious group (Genocide - Background; Convention on the Prevention). This word “intent” is very important here: For an intention, a Dolus Specialis is needed, an intention that makes genocide as such a unique crime, because people who become the victims of a genocide are not randomly targeted but on the contrary wilfully attacked, and this only because they belong to a special group of people (but not members as individuals) that someone who does not belong to this group wants to eliminate (Genocide - Background).

In 1946, the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg used the term “genocide” for the first time as an actual term, but it wasn’t seen as legal back then (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - Genocide Timeline). It only became codified in 1948, named Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, short Genocide Convention (Genocide Timeline). It has been ratified by 149 states by 2018, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) said that “the Convention embodies principles that are part of general customary international law” (Genocide - Background). This means that if states have or have not ratified and agreed to the Convention is not actually important, as everyone is bound through the law to see a genocide as a crime, because it is prohibited by the international law (Genocide -Background). In this same way, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was established in 1998: Between the 16th and the 17th of June 1998, a diplomatic conference was held in Rome where the Statute for the International Criminal Court (ICC) got adopted, the ICC being a major progress in the field of the international humanitarian law for a better implementation of it (“Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 17 July 1998”). The ICC got established in The Hague, in the Netherlands, and its jurisdiction rules over “suspected perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or aggression, including superiors or military commanders” (“Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 17 July 1998”).

Together with the actual definition of the term “genocide”, the implementation of these last two institutions meant a great progress over the time towards a better punishment of cases of genocide, as sadly the events which happened during the last World War did not meant an end to genocides, as will be seen below.

2. The evolution of the term “genocide” since the Second World War

Since the Second World War and the Holocaust against people of Jewish belief, Gypsies and Homosexuals, genocides against minorities or people with other beliefs did sadly not disappeared from history but can, on the contrary, be found throughout the time, even in recent events. In the following part, the essay will give a brief overview of some atrocities that happened after the end of the War and the downfall of Nazi Germany.

For example in 1971, a liberation war broke out in Bangladesh during which up to three millions of people of Hindu belief were killed during what has been called the “Operation Search Light”, an operation launched by the West Pakistan army (Lamb). Not soon after the events in Bangladesh, Cambodia saw itself victim of similar horrors: Between 1975 and 1979, around two million people died of the Khmer Rouge regime, and mostly intellectual people were targeted and suffered from it. The regime created, for example, a special torture centre called S-21 in Tuoi Dlrnh from which only 5 children and 14 adults survived, and this from around 17.000 people who had been sent there for what the regime called “interrogation” (Robinson). In 1994 then, the small country of Rwanda suffered a huge humanitarian crisis when Hutus, who were representing 85% of the population of the country at that time, decided to take up weapons and kill around 800.000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, the minority of the country. Over only 100 days, around 75% of the Tutsis living in Rwanda were executed, and even today the country is still trying to recover from these massive killings (Robinson). After Srebrenica in 1995, which took place shortly after what happened in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo got absorbed into a civil war where around six million people were killed while many women, children and men as well suffered from rapes, displacement and the destruction of properties and homes (Robinson). This horrifically high number is still one of the highest death tolls which happened after the Second World War (Robinson). These few examples, sadly not the only ones, just show how few the evolution after the Holocaust was and still is, and that obviously the lessons from the past have not been yet learned enough to avoid such things to happen. But what did actually happen after the end of World War II and the surrender of Nazi Germany on the side of justice?

Shortly after the war ended and Germany signed its defeat, on the 8th of May 1945, the trials of Nuremberg started, from 1945 until 1949. These trials were held to bring the highest Nazi criminals to justice, such as high-ranked military officers, doctors and lawyers, from whom many were found guilty of crimes such as crimes against humanity ( Staff). They were tried in front of the International Military Tribunal which defined crimes against humanity as being “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or persecutions on political, racial or religious ground” (USHMM - International Military Tribunal) and tried to bring at least a little bit of justice to the victims who had suffered from the past dictatorship of Nazi Germany. It is also important to evoke the fact that these trials were the start for the establishment of a more permanent international court, something that did not exist until then, and it was also a milestone for the way to deal with genocides and crimes against humanity which still happened over the following decades, as has been seen before ( Staff). After this, the next important step towards more justice in these spheres was the creation of, in 1998, the International Criminal Court (ICC). It was launched after the United Nations diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court adopted the Rome Statute (Arsanjani 22). This statute has 3 major principles: The first one, the principle of complementarity, declares that the “court may assume jurisdiction only when national legal systems are unable or unwilling to exercise jurisdiction” (24), which means that when there is a concurrent jurisdiction of national courts and the ICC, the national courts will always have the priority to handle the cases (24). The second principle is “that the statute […] deal(s) only with the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole” (25), which means that there must be a selection between the crimes committed and that not every crime can and will be judged by the ICC (25). The third principle states that “the statute should, to the extent possible, remain within the realm of customary international law” (25). With this last principle, the statute was supposed to be made widely acceptable and it was not possible to apply this principle to any other provisions of the statute (25).

But even though these past steps brought a huge difference in the way of punishing crimes as those seen above, it still isn’t enough, and the ICC is even today very busy trying criminals, for example the still ongoing trial of Al Hassan Mahmoud, a member of the group Ansar Eddine, who has been charged by the ICC for torture, rape and sexual slavery and several cases (“Case Information Sheet - The Situation in Mali”).

3. The Tribunal of The Hague

In May 1993, as the war in Bosnia was still far from being over, a special institution got created by the UN Security Council with Resolution 827, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (USHMM - Genocide Timeline). It was launched as a “response to mass atrocities then taking place in the Balkans” (“International Criminal Tribunal”), and the objective of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was to “try those individuals most responsible for acts such as murder, torture, rape, enslavement, destruction of property and other crimes” (“International Criminal Tribunal”). Its responsibility was to try those responsible for the war crimes and crimes against humanity which happened during the Croatian war, from 1991 until 1995, and the crimes from the Bosnian war, from 1992 until 1995, and its initiator was the Yugoslavian journalist Mirko Klarin (Fetscher 1.). At first, the tribunal started with small cases, but it rapidly grew to the extent as to judge cases such as those from Slobodan Milosevic, the ex-president of Serbia, Radovan Karadzic, the head of the Bosnian Serbs and especially the case of Ratko Mladic (1.).

It was Mladic, an army general, who became better known while working alongside with Karadzic as being the “Butcher of Bosnia”, as he was and still is today a symbol of “Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing that left tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced” (Gunter). He was also the responsible general for the siege of Sarajevo, a significant siege of the last century which lasted for three years and required around 10.000 dead people, but even more especially for the massacre of Srebrenica, with its more than 7.000 killed men and boys who were then put into mass graves, all between the age of 12 and 77 (Gunter). After the end of the war in 1995, Mladic run away and avoided being captured for 16 years with the help of Slobodan Milosevic, who was still president of Serbia back then until he got himself arrested in 2000, and only in May 2011 the international community succeeded in arresting Mladic near Belgrade (Gunter), the capital of Serbia. As soon as in 2012, he got brought in front of the ICTY in The Hague to be tried correctly, after having been accused of being responsible for, amongst ten other crimes, genocide (Gunter). He got sentenced to life imprisonment for this crime especially, combined with his other crimes (Fetscher 3.), but still it is questionable if, comparing to other obvious cases of genocides where more than 10.000 people died, Srebrenica with its “only” 8.000 dead people is really a genocide in the correct sense of the term.

4. Is Srebrenica really a genocide?

With all the previously seen details about the history of the Bosnian war and especially about Srebrenica, a question arises: can the events that happened in Srebrenica be considered as an actual genocide? To start with, it is questionable if the definition of a genocide, as has been seen before in 1. A definition of genocide, is applicable onto the events of Srebrenica. This paper will only get a closer look onto the point of the intent, the Dolus Specialis which has been already evoked previously, as this one is the most important point to say if yes or no there has been a genocide somewhere. Even though the ICTY qualified the events in Srebrenica as actually being a genocide, some points of the definition were questioned for quite some times (Marttinen 15), for example the point “intent to”: This intention which is needed to fulfil the context of a genocide was questioned by Serbia, as it did not agreed on the presence of such a specific intent in the case of Srebrenica and stated that what happened there had been part of the war and for this reason there was no specific intent of a genocide (15). But no matter what the Serbian side said, during the trial against Radislav Krstic, a commander of the Army of the Republika Srpska during the war, the ICTY stated that due to the fact that once the Bosnian Serbs got the full control over Srebrenica, in July 1995, they targeted systematically only the Bosnian Muslims which were males of military age, be they civilians or soldiers, by gathering, torturing and killing them, leaving aside only the women, children and elderly people (16). Due to this, the Chamber which led the trial against Krstic stated that in the case of Srebrenica, a specific intention existed once the Bosnian Serbs definitely took over the enclave at the beginning of July 1995, as this criterion “intent” could also only come later during events, because a genocide as itself does not need in general to be planed for a long time in advance (17). To conclude, as the intent for a genocide was present from the side of the Bosnian Serbs during Srebrenica, the case of the enclave has been declared by the ICTY itself as having been a genocide. This conclusion was also supported by the ICJ in 2007 when it stated, as well as had done the ICTY before, that genocidal acts had been committed in Srebrenica through the army of the Republika Srpska (Cour Internationale de Justice 6).

In a second time, now that it has been stated that Srebrenica is a genocide in the meaning of the official definition, a second question arises concerning events that happened during the war before 1995, in Kravica, and if the events of Srebrenica could have been a possible reaction to what had happened in Kravica in 1993. At the beginning of January 1993, more precisely on 7 January 1993, the day of the Orthodox Christmas, the cities near Srebrenica of Kravica, Ježestica and Šiljkovići were attacked by Bosnian Muslims as a result of a long-going blockade led by the Serb troops, who had been blocking humanitarian aid convoys as well as leading ongoing attacks on Bosnian Muslim villages (Genocideinbosnia). During the attack on Kravica on that day, led by Naser Orić, the commander of Bosnian Muslim defenders during the war, Orić received the support of many civilians who had overrun the town of Srebrenica and were now starving due to the shortcuts the enclave had to deal with (Nettlefield 77). These civilians got later known as being “bag holders” (77). Around 50 people got killed during the attack of Kravica, but more than 1.500 Serbs in total died when counting the other cities as well, including women, children and elderly people (“19 years since massacre of Serbs”). As an answer to the attacks, the VRS reduced the enclave of Srebrenica it was until then already been keeping to only 150 square kilometres, a way smaller area then before (Nettelfield 77). During the later trial of Mladic, a witness that survived the attack on Kravica answered to the question if he thought that the attacks that followed in the following war years on Bosnian Muslim population could be seen as a possible answer to these attacks in Kravica and surroundings: “I think so, because Orić burned and looted 17 villages” (“Mladic Witness”). In this way, especially when considering the fact that these cities where the attacks had happened were situated in the near surroundings of Srebrenica, the concept of a revenge from the Serbs with what happened in Srebrenica in July 1995 is not that impossible to imagine and stays a credible possibility that could be seen as an explanation for these later events.

III. Could Srebrenica have been avoided?

1. No lessons learned from Rwanda?

As seen before in the introduction of this essay, a similar massacre happened in 1994 in Rwanda, even though the number of victims overrun the numbers of Srebrenica by far. But 1994, that’s only a year prior to 1995 and the massacre in Srebrenica, so how could it have come to these two very significative massacres of so many people in only a year of time? Did the international community, who was involved in Srebrenica as well as it had been in Rwanda before, did not learn a single thing of how to handle, to read signs, to avoid such an event to repeat itself in such short time-lapse?

As seen before, in April 1994 the Hutu population of Rwanda started to murder systematically the Tutsi part of the population, armed with mostly machetes and guns, and in only some weeks 800.000 people died (Meisler 334). But not only was this massacre absolutely horrific, it got even worse when it came out that the United Nations, who had until then a mission going on in Rwanda called United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, short UNAMIR, could not defend nor stop in any way the killings going on in front of the troops which were staying there, even those killings that continued to happen, less often, until 1995 (O’Halloran 1). But even before these killings of April 1994 took place, it was already obvious to the UN troops staying on the ground that the killings had been “planned well before April 1994” and that “death lists were being drawn up in preparation for the killing of Batutsi, and the elimination of Bahutu opposition politicians and human rights activists” (Reyntjens qtd. in Hintjens 246). As early as in 1992 already, many Hutus started to train in various hunting techniques and different operations on destroying things and people, and due to this, Hintjens openly says in her article that the people who were on power during the early 1990s were obviously responsible for the genocide that happened in early 1994 (247). She also states in her article that this genocide was never intended to be “spontaneous”, as it had been planned long time before, and that the Tutsis who were killed during the massacre were actually not different to the Hutus who massacred them (247). They were quite similar on many levels, be it education, religious beliefs or language spoken, and even the distinctions of their appearance, which was often said to be a huge difference between both ethnics, was not that obvious than thought (247). That is also a reason why during the genocide mistakes have been made from the perpetrators who thought that someone was Tutsi just because of their physical appearance, but actually the victim was as much Hutu as the killer himself, but still had to be killed only because he looked a little bit different (247; 272).


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Could the massacre of Srebrenica have been prevented?
The role of the international community
Eötvös Loránd University
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could, srebrenica
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Mathilda Castel (Author), 2018, Could the massacre of Srebrenica have been prevented?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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