Reconciliation in Bosnia
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday, 29 July 2012
Tensions between the Yugoslav republics soon emerged after Tito’s death and in 1991, the federation collapsed into mayhem. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was particularly complex and horrific because there were so many parties involved. It was principally a territorial conflict, initially between Serb forces and the national army of Bosnia and Herzegovina (which was mainly composed of Muslim Bosniaks) and Croatian forces. The population of the multi-ethnic, multi-faith Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was 44% Muslim Bosniaks, 31% Orthodox Serbs, 17% Catholic Croats. Serbs set up their own enclave within Bosnia, Republika Srpska, whose army had some 80,000 personnel during the war and committed war crimes and genocide against Bosnia Muslims and Croats.
Sarajevo and Srebrenica can stand as specimens for the many horrors of the Bosnian war. The siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, three times longer than the Siege of Stalingrad. There was an average of 329 shell impacts per day during the course of the siege, with a maximum of 3,777 on July 22, 1993. It is estimated that nearly 12,000 people were killed or went missing in the city, including over 1,500 children. An additional 56,000 people were wounded, including nearly 15,000 children. Snipers killed civilians queuing for water or trying to buy food in the market. Bosniak homes were ransacked, males taken to concentration camps, women repeatedly raped. UNICEF reported that, at least 40% children in the city had been directly shot at by snipers; 51% had seen someone killed; 39% had seen one or more family members killed; 19% had witnessed a massacre; 48% had their home occupied by someone else; 73% had their home attacked or shelled; and 89% had lived in underground shelters. The Bosnian Government reported a soaring suicide rate by Sarajevans, a near doubling of abortions and a 50% drop in births since the siege began.
Srebrenica UN failings
In July 1995, at Srebrenica, a “safe area” under UN protection, 8,000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up by Serb forces under Ratko Mladić and massacred. The victims included boys aged under 15, men over the age of 65, women, and reportedly even several babies. Dutch UN soldiers were criticised for failing to protect the Bosniak refugees in the “safe area”. Lieutenant-Colonel Thom Karremans was filmed drinking a toast with Mladić .
In 2005, in a message on the tenth anniversary commemoration of the genocide, Kofi Annan noted that great nations had failed to respond adequately and that Srebrenica would haunt the UN forever. In 2004, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ruled that the massacre constituted genocide, a crime under international law.
Addressing the Bosnian parliament in July 2012 Ban Ki-moon said: “In a tragedy of such epic proportions, there was so much blood and so much blame. The United Nations did not live up to its responsibility. The international community failed in preventing the genocide that unfolded”.
Jasmin Mujanović argues that persistent fallacies have informed the international community’s attempts to “deal” with Bosnia since (at least) 1991-92. He writes that the war was not “the result of the unbridled and millennial ethnic hatreds of its peoples, but rather the engineered and orchestrated machinations of an unaccountable political elite seeking to secure its political and economic survival in a period of immense social crisis…” Significant elements of the international community advocated a foreign policy based on preserving a vacuous conception of ‘stability’ and ‘unity’ rather than a principled insistence on democratization and human rights. …the international community had sent strong signals to the country’s leadership that an increased role by the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) would be a welcome step towards checking some of their growing concerns about the stability of political authority in the country in the post-Tito period.”
There are large discrepancies between estimates of the total number of casualties in the Bosnian war, with estimates ranging from 25,000 to 329,000. According to Prof. Steven L. Burg and Prof. Paul S. Shoup, “The figure of 200,000 (or more) dead, injured, and missing was frequently cited in media reports on the war in Bosnia as late as 1994. The October 1995 bulletin of the Bosnian Institute for Public Health of the Republic Committee for Health and Social Welfare gave the numbers as 146,340 killed and 174,914 wounded on the territory under the control of the Bosnian army. Mustafa Imamovic gave a figure of 144,248 perished (including those who died from hunger or exposure), mainly Muslims. “
There were several major massacres during 1995 and NATO made widespread air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions supported by UNPROFOR rapid reaction force artillery attacks. On 14 September 1995, the NATO air strikes were suspended to allow the implementation of an agreement with Bosnian Serbs for the withdrawal of heavy weapons from around Sarajevo. A 60-day ceasefire came into effect on October 12, and on November 1 peace talks began in Dayton, Ohio. The war ended with the Dayton Peace Agreement signed on November21, 1995.
The Dayton Accord was described as a “construction of necessity” the immediate purpose of which was to freeze the military confrontation, and prevent it from resuming. There is no space here to go into the intricate juggling to swap territories from one group to another in order to establish the new nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). Many scholars have deemed Dayton an impressive example of conflict resolution which has turned Bosnia from a basket-case to a potential EU member.
Critics have, however, had problems with the fact international actors, unaccountable to BiH’s citizens, were allowed to shape the agenda of post-war transition, and decide punishment for local political actors. Another perceived flaw is that each ethnic group was discontented with the results.
Truth and reconciliation
Retributive justice is impossible to apply in a context like Bosnia where so many were involved in the conflict. There are not enough resources to capture and try everyone who committed war crimes. Widespread arrests would reignite conflict. In January 2005, Hajra Catic of the Mothers of Srebrenica organization, “lost faith” in ICTY’s ability to dispense justice after they sentenced Dragan Jokic, a man she believed was responsible for 3,000 deaths, to only nine years in prison.
Eileen Babbitt wrote about UN efforts to reintegrate refugees: “they were coming back to communities where they were really, really unwanted. Most of them were coming back to places where they were a majority population and now post-war they are the minority, so another group has literally taken over and moved into their homes, and many of those people are also displaced, traumatized, etc. and they’re not about to simply give up everything and welcome the returning refugees with open arms.”
Reconciliation is hampered by a refusal to face up to the truth because each group has its own narrative. Schools are strictly segregated and children learn three different versions of the war. After many failed attempts, there has still not been a successful truth commission.
On 6 December 2004, Serbian president Boris Tadić made an apology to all those who suffered crimes committed in the name of the Serb people. Croatia’s president Ivo Josipović apologized in April 2010 for his country’s role in the Bosnian War. On 31 March 2010, the Serbian parliament adopted a declaration “condemning in strongest terms the crime committed in July 1995 against Bosniak population of Srebrenica” and apologizing to the families of the victims.
In Bosnia, 88% support the country’s bid for EU membership. Identification with Europe as a supranational community can in Bosnia and Herzegovina become a way to overcome ethnic differences. Poll results show that support for EU membership is strongest in the Muslim community, with 97% in favour, while 85% of Bosnian Croats support it and 78% of Bosnian Serbs. The EU-initiated processes of institutional engineering and systemic inclusion of minority groups and non-nationalists into policy-making processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina signals an important and historic shift from an ethnocentric citizenship model towards a democratic and inclusive citizenship regime.
On July 25, 2012, Ban Ki-moon addressed the BiH parliament and noted the progress achieved by Bosnia and Herzegovina over the last two decades, including its transformation from a country which hosted UN peacekeepers to a troop contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, and from occupying the agenda of the Security Council to successfully serving on the Council. “Led by your priorities and direction, we are working together to create jobs especially for young people, extend social protection for the most vulnerable groups, end the suffering of those enduring protracted displacement, safeguard the environment, tackle discrimination and promote respect for human rights and the rule of law.”
The Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) highlighted the continued marginalization of minority groups, particularly Roma. In a joint opinion issued in June, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UK Foreign Affairs Minister William Hague expressed disappointment at the protracted institutional gridlock in Bosnia that was preventing needed reforms, including ending ethnic discrimination in politics.