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Human, All Too Human | The Nation

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Human, All Too Human

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In the winter of 1992, at the height of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, I interviewed a group of Bosnian Muslim refugees who had found sanctuary in the Croatian city of Karlovac. Their accounts were confused and confusing, but they shared a common thread. One after another, the refugees reported that when the Serbs arrived in their towns and villages they immediately rounded up community and religious leaders, teachers and intellectuals. They were the first to be executed. I was not sure whether to believe these traumatized, shattered survivors. I should have.

About the Author

Adam LeBor
Adam LeBor's most recent book is Complicity With Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide (Yale). In May...

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Home for centuries to Christians, Muslims and Jews, Salonica was a cosmopolitan world where people of various cultures and religions lived side by side.

It is one of history's darker ironies that the Serb paramilitaries of the 1990s who wiped out Bosnia's Ottoman heritage used ethnic cleansing methods honed by the Ottoman army eight decades earlier. The Turks deployed the Bashi-Bazouks, former criminals released from prison, during the Armenian genocide in 1915. The Bashi-Bazouks lived off plunder and were granted a free hand to murder and rape. When the campaign against the Armenians began, Turkish soldiers sealed off each community and rounded up its leaders and other notables. They then executed them in the public square. Many of the Serb paramilitaries who committed the worst atrocities in Bosnia were also criminals, released by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to do the regime's dirtiest work. Like their Turkish predecessors, the Serbs too had lists, we now know, of those slated for execution when the ethnic cleansing began. The men of Karlovac were telling the truth.

Genocide, or what we now define as genocide--the intentional destruction of a national or ethnic group--is not a modern crime. The Bible records repeated incidents of the warring peoples of the Near East annihilating each other, but genocide is a modern term. It was invented by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin. During the 1930s Lemkin lobbied the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, for laws against the destruction of a people. In 1944 he published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, the first work to contain the word genocide, from genos, Greek for people or race, and caedere, Latin for to cut or kill. Paradoxically, while genocide continues to take place, the word has become so powerful that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it has almost become "the crime that dare not speak its name."

Consider the strange, if not perverse, reluctance of one of the primary bodies charged with prosecuting war criminals to deliver a guilty verdict for genocide. Gen. Radislav Krstic was the commander of the Drina Corps of the Bosnian Serb army, which carried out much of the killing at Srebrenica, where in July 1995 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were murdered. Krstic was indicted by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1998 on six counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. In August 2001 he was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to forty-six years in prison. But the sentence was later reduced on appeal, to thirty-five years, when the ICTY found Krstic guilty of the lesser charge of aiding and abetting genocide.

The former speaker of the Bosnian Serb "parliament" Momcilo Krajisnik was sentenced in September to twenty-seven years in prison for his role in organizing the ethnic cleansing campaigns in 1992. Krajisnik was the most senior Serbian indictee to be held at The Hague since the death of Milosevic. He was found guilty of five counts of war crimes, including persecution, extermination and forced transfer. Judge Alphons Orie said that Krajisnik had played a crucial role in conducting war crimes, and that the actus reus (guilty act) of genocide had occurred. Nevertheless, the judges acquitted Krajisnik of genocide, arguing that they had not received sufficient evidence of genocidal intent to destroy the Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat ethnic groups. What this means is that the ICTY has ruled that genocide did take place at Srebrenica in July 1995 and in eastern Bosnia in 1992, but as of February 2007 no one has been found guilty of actually committing these acts of genocide. On February 26 the International Court of Justice, which deals with disputes between states, ruled that Serbia was not guilty of genocide but had failed in its obligations to prevent it at Srebrenica, further confusing matters.

Asimilarly arid debate shapes the discourse over Darfur. The Bush Administration claims that a genocide is occurring there but refuses to act under its obligations as a signatory to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to stop the killing. The UN refuses to use the G-word at all. In January 2005 it released a 176-page report on Darfur. It recorded that government forces and their proxy militia, known as the Janjaweed, engaged in widespread and systematic murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, pillaging and forced displacement. The report noted that despite the fact that two elements of genocide "might be deduced"--the act of killing and the targeting of a particular group--"the crucial element of genocidal intent appears to be missing." As if that weren't opaque enough, it added that some individuals may have committed acts with "genocidal intent."

This endless hair-splitting greatly aids states that perpetrate genocide. If nobody knows what genocide is, then how can anyone be guilty of committing it? It detracts from the more important debate of how to stop the ongoing killing in Darfur. Wrongly viewing Darfur through the prism of the Iraq War, much of the left, both in the United States and Europe, seems paralyzed by the fear of being seen to support another overseas adventure. For all its complications--pre-existing conflicts over water and agricultural land, desertification and arbitrary international borders--the crisis in Darfur is also simple. The Sudanese government is waging a sustained campaign of murder, ethnic cleansing and displacement against the people of Darfur, a campaign extensively documented by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others. The slaughter could be curtailed or even brought to a close without Western military intervention. Such steps might include: deploying UN troops inside Sudan; deploying peacekeepers in Chad to prevent cross-border raids; targeted sanctions on Sudan's oil industry; targeted sanctions on Sudanese government ministers, army and intelligence officers; using US trade as a weapon to pressure China, Sudan's main sponsor, to stop the carnage; and even threats to boycott the Beijing Olympics.

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