The risks of victimhood

Today stones were thrown at Serbian Prime Minister Vucic, who was departing the 20th anniversary commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre in eastern Bosnia. He had previously made statements on the occasion:

As the prime minister of the Serbian government I’m ready to bow and pay respect to innocent victims of Srebrenica.

He is also reported to have said Belgrade “despised” those responsible for the massacre, which he described as “a terrible and terrifying crime.” This is a far cry from what he said in 1995, right after Srebrenica:

one hundred Muslims would be killed for every dead Serb

When people move in the right direction, my inclination is to welcome them, not throw stones at them.

But Serbia has refused to characterize the event as “genocide,” despite decisions by both the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice. At Belgrade’s behest, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution this week, apparently because it included the g-word.

Some have said the stone throwing incident was “attempted murder” or a “lynching.” It was neither. But it was ugly, dangerous and unworthy. Gerard Toal reminds us courageously:

we need to examine with extreme sensitivity how the production of victimhood through the memorialization of genocide can sometimes produce acts of genocide.

I would add that it can also cause less deadly harm. Florence Hartmann and Ed Vulliamy blame Britain and the United States for abandoning Srebrenica to its fate. While they are two people who merit a great deal of credit for their advocacy on the Bosnian war, their allegation is based on misinterpretation of what happened in 1995.

They treat as news the idea that Britain and the US knew what might happen at Srebrenica. That’s not news. They themselves quote a Security Council report from 1993 warning of 25,000 casualties if the Serbs were to enter Srebrenica. Of course we (I was in the State Department) knew that the Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia might be overrun. They were militarily indefensible. It is not clear that even air attacks could have stopped what happened.

Washington was trying to convince Bosnian President Izetbegovic to give up on maintaining the enclave at Srebrenica and move its population to Federation territory. That was not in any sense abandoning Srebrenica to its fate, though it would have amounted to helping the Serbs cleanse eastern Bosnia of Muslims. It also would have saved, as it happens, more than 8000 lives. I don’t think we were wrong to lean in that direction. Saving lives was more important than holding on to indefensible territory.

Izetbegovic would have none of it. He favored keeping the enclaves in order to attract international attention and hoped-for military intervention. The former was eventually ample, but the latter was not until later in the summer of 1995, when NATO unleashed a disproportionate air attack on the Serbs in retaliation for a mortar that landed in Sarajevo. Srebrenica may or may not have informed later decisions, but those of us who lived through the events will always regret that we didn’t do more to stop what happened in July 1995.

That does not mean we were to blame. Nor was Izetbegovic, even if his decisions left the Muslims of Srebrenica exposed to their fate. Let’s get this straight: Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic were to blame. Blaming the US, Britain or Izetbegovic, or even Aleksandar Vucic, makes no sense and risks creating a sense of victimhood that could take disastrous directions. What happened, as Ed Joseph points out, was the Serb war aim, not a perversion of it. It is important to keep the focus where it belongs, lest victimhood get out of hand.


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One thought on “The risks of victimhood”

  1. The children I met in the orphanage in Tuzla, spent 4 years working with to help them rebuild their pre-war family homes in isolated valleys in Srebrenica and many of the rural communities surrounding it continue to be victims of political short-comings in the BiH. They are all grown now, and have families and children of their own.   
      In many respects, Bosnia continues to be a victim of the conflict in the 1990s. Perhaps even a victim of the peace accord that resulted in its current constitution. I don’t wish to focus so much on the past generally. Revisionist history has a way of creeping in. I tend to focus on ADVOCACY – to be able to make progress by helping to change social norms, seeking development.   It is vital to include the voices of the poor in their own development efforts.
    NYU professor William Easterly at the Interaction Forum 2015 challenged policy makers to rethink the old ways we use to overcome poverty and solve development problems.   He made the points that ‘technical solutions’ are NOT enough.  It might be a lot more constructive to be less supportive of leaders of countries with human rights problems.  He suggested several things it is important for us to conceptualize:
    Do not let action plans be an excuse for not doing something;
    Protest our own government supporting oppressive allies;
    Don’t praise autocratic rulers;
    Join the moral debate.

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