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Western Promises | The Nation

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Western Promises

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While Hartmann and Nice squarely disagree in their accounts of the tribunal's internal dynamics, they reach similar conclusions about the role of Western powers, especially the United States, in the war's seminal event: the killings in Srebrenica in July 1995. In the spring of that year, negotiations between Milosevic and Western officials over the shape of Bosnia were reaching a turning point. While there was general agreement to divide the country into two autonomous entities, the outlines of the map were still in dispute. The main point of contention was three Muslim enclaves--Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde--nestled in the midst of Bosnian Serb territory. In 1993 they had been designated by the UN as "safe areas" to protect them from Mladic's army. But in July 1995 Mladic and Karadzic decided to force the issue by launching a major offensive against the enclaves, starting with Srebrenica. The story of how the city was overrun and several thousand inhabitants were executed as UN peacekeepers watched helplessly has been recounted many times, most grippingly by David Rohde, an American reporter who first uncovered evidence of the massacre and whose Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica (1997) describes the event through the eyes of seven witnesses. Rohde concluded that the litany of mistakes that led to the massacre was a "passive conspiracy" rather than a cynical backroom deal.

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Marc Perelman
Marc Perelman is a Paris-based journalist for the TV station France 24 and was previously the diplomatic correspondent...

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While acknowledging their failure to prevent Srebrenica--which was documented in French and Dutch parliamentary reports published in November 2001 and April 2002, respectively--UN, NATO and Western officials have always claimed they never imagined that the Bosnian Serb takeover of the city would result in the worst massacre on European soil since World War II. And they have consistently rejected the accusation that they purposely allowed the Bosnian Serb takeover of Srebrenica and, a few days later, Zepa in order to negotiate the release of dozens of UN troops being held hostage by Bosnian Serbs or to facilitate the peace agreement that was reached four months later in Dayton. Western officials have stressed that major powers actually prevented Mladic from taking over Gorazde.

In recent years, that official version of history has come under scrutiny. In Srebrenica: Un génocide annoncé (Srebrenica: A Genocide Foretold), a book published in France on the tenth anniversary of the massacre, French writer Sylvie Matton offers some fresh acknowledgments by senior European political and military officials--mostly French--that the tragic fate of the enclave was no mystery. The most vivid acknowledgment is provided by Alain Juppé, who was prime minister of France at the time of the Srebrenica massacre. "It was widely known that the Serbs wanted to take the enclaves and annihilate the men," Juppé told Matton, who then asked Juppé what he meant by "annihilate." "Let's say we knew they would take no prisoners," he answered.

In a November 2005 interview on Bosnian television, Holbrooke, who at the time of Srebrenica was assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs and who later spearheaded the US mediation that led to the 1995 Dayton Accords, declared that his "initial instructions" were to "sacrifice Srebrenica, Gorazde and Zepa." His remarks went unnoticed for a year until Muhamed Sacirbey, who was the Bosnian foreign minister at the time, noticed them while watching a tape of the program. It was indeed a stunning reversal. Holbrooke had always said that the initial US policy during the summer of 1995 was to push the Bosnian Muslims to abandon only Gorazde--a policy he claims he successfully rejected, the proof being that the Bosnian Muslims never fled Gorazde while it was under siege. But in November 2005 he seemed to admit that the United States, in fact, envisioned sacrificing the three enclaves--which would have made it an accessory to the goals of the Bosnian Serbs.

Holbrooke told me he had misspoken in the television interview, and that the orders he received--and rejected--involved only Gorazde, thus returning to the original script. Sacirbey thinks a veteran diplomat like Holbrooke would be too savvy to make such a mistake, especially during a formal television interview taped on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica. "I think he is in fact quietly dispersing blame in the face of mounting evidence of Western foreknowledge of Srebrenica," Sacirbey told me.

Hartmann is "convinced there was a deal between Western officials and Milosevic on the three enclaves reached in May 1995." Nice, ever the cautious lawyer, told me that "in light of the information we got and information we knew existed but that we were unable to get, I am left wondering whether the West knew and gave the Serbs an orange light to take over Srebrenica," adding that he had planned to raise the issue during the Milosevic trial before its abrupt ending. "Unfortunately, this will likely never be discussed in a court." Del Ponte's office said there was "no evidence that we were able to present in court that any 'Western powers' knew with certainty that genocide was about to be committed in Srebrenica."

They could be wrong. In November, families of Srebrenica victims learned that a complaint they had filed against the Netherlands and the UN could proceed after a court in The Hague dismissed pleas by public prosecutors that the case should be dropped after the UN invoked its legal immunity. The lawsuit, filed by the victims' families in July, argues that the Dutch were to blame for the massacre because they refused crucial air support to their own UN troops defending the Bosnian town.

At the Milosevic trial, the prosecution managed to get only one representative of the fifteen-member UN Security Council to testify: Arria, the former Venezuelan ambassador. "All the others refused because they lied when they said they didn't know about Srebrenica," he told me. In 1993 he conducted a fact-finding mission to Bosnia and then warned the Security Council that a slow-moving genocide was taking place in Srebrenica: "So you have in effect a cover-up that continues to this day."

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