60 Second Expert:The Srebrenica Massacre, after Fifteen Years

This summer marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, where 8,000 Muslims, mostly men and boys, lost their lives in the single worst act of genocide in Europe since the 1940s. For many, the key lesson of Srebrenica is that the United States should have used military force against the Serbs sooner than they did. For others, Srebrenica is a painful reminder of the overstated value of military intervention as a solution to a humanitarian crisis which in reality, could have been avoided through diplomatic means.

The sad fact is that the entire situation, the Srebrenica massacre and the larger Bosnian war, was preventable. One overlooked event is the effort by the European Community, led by Portuguese diplomat, José Cutileiro, to mediate the conflict by bringing together the leaders of the three major ethnic groups from Bosnia (including President Izetbegović, who represented the Muslims) for a series of international conferences, mostly in Lisbon, in 1992.

Remarkably similar to the Dayton Accords of 1995, Cutileiro’s plan was a political decentralization of Bosnia into three semi-autonomous regions. However, the U.S. opposed the Lisbon agreement and actually played a crucial role in propelling the war by encouraging Croats and Muslims to withdraw from the agreement. Warren Zimmermann, ambassador to Yugoslavia, offered Muslim leader Alija Izetbegović a direct incentive – U.S. recognition – in exchange for rejection of the Lisbon agreement.

It was only after the tragedy of Srebrenica that United States officials decided it was time to demonstrate a commitment to human rights through military involvement. In reality, however, the intervention led to additional war crimes and acts of ethnic cleansing. The first offensive began in the Krajina region of eastern Croatia as a brutal attack on Serb towns that left many innocent civilians, including women and children, dead. Between 150,000 and 200,000 Serbs were forced to flee the region in what the New York Times termed “the largest single movement of refugees in Europe since the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956.”

U.S. intervention produced huge humanitarian repercussions. Other than the hundreds of thousands of Serb refugees who were systematically evacuated from their homes, some 30,000 anti-Izetbegović Muslims were expelled from the Bihać region of western Bosnia, since they were considered politically unreliable.

Overall, Muslim casualties certainly outnumber the Serbs killed during the U.S. intervention. That, however, should not absolve the Bosnian and Croatian armies of atrocities and the U.S. of its role in obstructing the peace process. The terms of the Dayton Accords were realistically not much different from the EU efforts of 1992 except that in 1995, the United States, not Europe, was credited with mediating the dispute.

The full article can be accessed here.

David N. Gibbs is professor of history and government at the University of Arizona. This article draws from his recent book, First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Vanderbilt University Press, 2009). Readers who wish to find source material for the quotes above can contact Professor Gibbs, dgibbs@arizona.edu.