Srebrenica and the Neocolonial Community

There have been three good reasons over the course of the past seven or eight days for the small city in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina named Srebrenica to have been reported in the world’s news.

(Leaving aside whatever other good reasons there may have been for stories about Srebrenica to turn up inside Bosnia and Herzegovina itself. Whether in the Bosniak-Croat Federation or the contorted Republika Srpska side of it, wherein Srebrenica and its environs are located. A topic about which one simply will have to ask the people who live there.)

Srebrenica. Srebrenica. Srebrenica. As in the “Srebrenica massacre.” As in “Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.” As in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Endgame, by David Rohde (1997). And significant chunks of another Pulitzer Prize winner, Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell (2002). (Mentions are not endorsements, incidentally.) As well as in the chant “Never Again.” And in the invocation of the “Responsibility to Protect” and “Millennium Goals.”

Srebrenica is the most infamous of the events that accompanied the wars over the break-up of Yugoslavia. Bar none. This episode fed, more than any other, the popular American genre in which one proves one’s moral bona fides by lamenting the failure of the Americans and/or the “international community” to do something about the depravity of others, but especially something that includes state violence, otherwise known as war. Artful lamentations about the lack of a sufficiently strong political will to kill others when they conduct themselves in officially-designated criminal manners—this genre may not have begun with the “Srebrenica massacre,” but it certainly was advanced by it. (Just as it was advanced by the “Kosovo crisis.” And has been advanced by every other “crisis” in which American Power has taken an interest in one form or another of intervention.)

Ultimately, and more officiously, Srebrenica received copious treatment by the UN Secretary-General (The Fall of Srebrenica, 1999). An investigation by the French Parliament (BBC, Nov. 29, 2001). And a massive study under the auspices of the Dutch Government by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, Srebrenica: A “Safe” Area. Reconstruction, Background, Consequences and Analyses of the Fall of a Safe Area (2002). Indeed. Srebrenica—and everything it symbolizes—just may be the most heavily studied atrocity since the one for which the cry “Never Again” has echoed since the Second World War.—So how did Srebrenica make its way back into the news this past week?

ONE. The first of these was an October 9 appearance by the University of Amsterdam’s Cees Wiebes on a BBC Radio 5 program titled “The Real Slobodan Milosevic.” Introducing Wiebes (whose comments appeared on pre-recorded tape, rather than live), Clive Anderson, the program’s host, noted that “new light has been cast [on the Srebrenica massacre] by Dr. Cees Wiebes….[who] was commissioned by the Dutch government to look into the intelligence failings surrounding the fall of Srebrenica and spent five years researching it.” (Throughout, I am indebted to the labors of Tim Fenton of the U.K. for having unearthed and transcribed this material from BBC Radio 5.)

Two important excerpts from Wiebes’ comments follow. (For those of you who’d like to audio-stream the entire program, click on “The Real Slobodan Milosevic.” Though I am cautioned that BBC Radio 5 is a relatively new addition to the BBC, less archival than the others, and there is no telling how long this link will remain up and running.)

Dr. Cees Wiebes: In our report, which is about 7,000 pages long, we came to the conclusion that Milosevic had no foreknowledge of the subsequent massacres. We did not find evidence in this respect. That doesn’t mean that there is no evidence but we did not find it.

What we found, however, is evidence to the contrary: Milosevic was very upset when he learnt about the massacres, we heard this from various diplomats, and also other witnesses who we interviewed. We also learnt from another Bosnian Serb person who went to Milosevic two weeks after the attack that he was very, very angry, shouting words like “Which idiot ordered these massacres?”

And it’s understandable because Milosevic in this phase of the war was looking for a political settlement.

Various sources inside the Yugoslav Tribunal in The Hague have told me that investigators in the case of Milosevic asked the prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, to drop the charges, the genocide charges, against Mr. Milosevic regarding Bosnia because they couldn’t find any leads to Milosevic and the subsequent atrocities.


Dr Cees Wiebes: For the whole demise of the Former Yugoslavia I think Mr. Milosevic bears a big responsibility, but also the other leaders like Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Izetbegovic [of Bosnia-Herzegovina]. I mean all bear a certain sense of responsibility, I think Mr. Milosevic bears the biggest responsibility.

However, to portray the Bosnian Muslims as lily-white and the Serbs as the evils [sic] is simply not true. It’s not a simple black-and-white picture as regards the Bosnian war. I’ve never seen in my research so much grey. Of course the killings and the subsequent murder of 7,000 people is a huge atrocity but other elements are very much in grey tones. The Tribunal in The Hague flies in experts from all over the world to testify. Well, there are ten people in Amsterdam who did the most extensive research on Srebrenica and the Bosnian war. We were never invited in The Hague—we’re just living around the corner—and why? What I heard from good sources at the tribunal is that [the Chief Prosecutor] Ms. Del Ponte thinks we are too “nuanced,” we are not seeing things in black and white, and good military experts in our team were never consulted.

As best I can tell, since BBC Radio 5 ran this program eight days ago, there has been one significant mention of Cees Wiebes’ comments in the mainstream English-language news media, and what possible implications they might have for the trial of Slobodan Milosevic before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia: Namely, Chris Stephen’s “Milosevic: ‘no link to genocide found’,” The Observer (London), October 10—and Stephen was also used for the same BBC Radio 5 program. “Wiebes is the first senior figure to say publicly what many Hague sources have been saying privately for some time,” Stephen wrote, “that there is simply no evidence to back the genocide charge [against Milosevic]”—and this despite the fact that “Prosecutors have spent months trying to prove otherwise….”

Of course, this begs the question of the nature of the genocide charge in the first place, and the Tribunal’s use of it in all the indictments that touch on Srebrenica. But Cees Wiebes’ comments are not only exculpatory for Milosevic. (Presuming they could get beyond a radio interview to Trial Chamber III at the ICTY.) They are quite frankly damning for the Office of the Prosecutor and how it conducts its affairs. Yet aside from Stephen’s article in the October 10 Observer—nothing.

TWO. Also on October 9, Ljubisa Beara, a former colonel and chief of security in the Army of the Republika Srpska during the July, 1995 fall, evacuation, fighting and massacres that are known singularly as the “Srebrenica massacre,” and a man indicted by the ICTY for genocide or complicity in genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war for his role in these events (Case Number IT-02-58-I, March 26, 2002—note that the ridiculous phrase “joint criminal enterprise” also appears herein), surrendered to authorities some place in Serbia and Montenegro (though the ICTY’s Office of the Prosecutor insists he was captured rather than voluntarily surrendering), whereupon he was extradited to the ICTY’s custody at The Hague.

On October 12, Beara made his initial appearance before Judge Iain Bonomy (also a judge in the Milosevic case, having replaced the late Richard May earlier this year) to hear the charges against him read. Transcripts of courtroom proceedings are woefully behind at the ICTY. ( At this moment, for example, the latest transcript in the Milosevic trial is dated September 15.) So I can’t reproduce any of the exchanges during Beara’s initial appearance here. But Agence France Presse reported (Oct. 12) that Beara “did not enter a plea to the genocide charges against him but instead called on all remaining fugitives to turn themselves in. ‘All of those who would see this, my comrades in arms, I call on them to voluntarily surrender to get rid of the stone that hangs around the neck of our nation’,” were Beara’s words. And odd statement, to say the least, for a man charged with the crimes that have landed Beara at the ICTY.

Or maybe not. In all of the reports that I’ve seen on Beara’s surrender/arrest, transfer to the ICTY, and first appearance in court, a recurring theme has been the role that this episode has played in “easing the country’s tense relations with the European Union and the United States,” as the New York Times put it. The Times elaborated (Nicholas Wood, “A Bosnian-Serb Leader Faces War-Crimes Court,” Oct. 13):

Although Mr. Beara is not the most important of the suspects sought by the tribunal—the former Bosnian Serb Army commander Ratko Mladic is widely viewed as the most significant—his transfer to The Hague was seen by Western diplomats in Belgrade as an essential first step to improving Serbia’s difficult international relations. Serbia’s failure to cooperate with the court has cost it a substantial amount in financial aid from the United States, and its application for European Union membership has been frozen over the issue.

Experts in Belgrade said the move appeared to be a gesture of good will, coming four days after a visit to Serbia by European Union’s chief foreign policy representative, Javier Solana, and as well as the European Union’s commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten.

“I am glad that we are finally in a position to move on with Serbia and Montenegro, after long delays due to internal disputes in that country,” the Irish Times quoted Chris Patten as saying. The Irish Times itself explained that the “European Union tried to draw a line yesterday under recent disputes with Serbia and Montenegro, saying it would gradually move to strengthen ties with Belgrade after it handed over an officer indicted for genocide,” and after a “series of top officials from the EU, the US and the UN tribunal at The Hague have berated Belgrade in recent weeks for failing to catch indicted war criminals…” (Daniel McLaughlin, Oct. 12).

The other news sources I’ve found reported basically the same thing. Perhaps none more directly to the point than Reuters. Beara’s handover to the ICTY last weekend was a “deliberate cooperation test for Serbia arranged by U.N. chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte,” said Reuters, “set in order to determine whether the government is sincere about complying with international justice, despite evidence of delay and reluctance on the part of conservative Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.”

Citing a report over Belgrade’s B-92 Radio, the Reuters report continued (“Hague Prosecutor ‘Set War Crimes Test’ for Serbia,” Oct. 11):

Contrary to the official version, he had not contacted the authorities with an offer to surrender, but was located and arrested thanks to information passed on by Del Ponte, it said.

She had told Kostunica of Beara’s whereabouts during a visit to Belgrade last week, saying her tip would test his “willingness to demonstrate that authorities were ready to cooperate.”


The issue is splitting the Serbian leadership. President Boris Tadic says Serbia is at a crossroads and must comply for its own good.

Mladic’s handover would, almost at a stroke, remove remaining obstacles to Serbia’s integration into Europe and access to international credits.

And Beara’s transfer would make a perfect template for the surrender of Mladic. Its manner and timing were carefully planned, unlike in some previous cases.

The arrest was kept secret and there were no supporters at the airport to see him off as most of the country watched an important football match late on Saturday night.

Such tactics may reflect government anxiety to minimize the scope for public protest at the handover of men viewed as heroes by hard-liners, who might react violently.

Reuters’ report deserves to be taken seriously because it fits a pattern whereby an international structure of coercion has been employed against resistant political forces within the former Yugoslavia in order to compel their compliance with demands that they do suchandsuch things at suchandsuch critical times. Perhaps the most flagrant recent example of this occurred at the end of June, when the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina announced that it was firing as many as 60 members of the Government of the Republika Srpska because they had not proven sufficiently compliant with their “international obligations toward the ICTY.” (“High Representative Announces Measures against ICTY Obstructionists,” June 30, 2004.) The High-Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina had this authority vested in it by the December 1995 Dayton Peace Accord. The exercise of this power then, and the exercise of a similar (though by no means legal) power last weekend by the ICTY’s Office of the Prosecutor in forcing Belgrade’s compliance with the demands of the ICTY, would belong to the same international structure of coercion that came out of the American, British, NATO-bloc, and United Nations management of the breakup of Yugoslavia over the last decade. Compliance being the key concept here. Comply—or pay the price.

THREE. On Thursday, October 14, officials of the Republika Srpska “admitted for the first time…that Serb forces slaughtered more than 7,000 Muslims in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II,” Agence France Presse reported (Oct. 14). In what I’ve been able to find, reports like this were also filed by Associated Press (“Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, a Bosnian Serb commission conceded Thursday in its final report on the 1995 massacre,” Oct. 14). Also Deutsche Presse-Agentur (“A Bosnian Serb commission released a report Thursday detailing the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica—admitting for the first time killing more than 7,000 Bosnian Moslem men,” Oct. 14). Doubtless other wire services as well. And, of course, the mainstream print dailies—though interestingly enough, only in blurb-like reports. Nothing full-length. For example:

“Massacre Panel Delivers Final Report,” The Independent (London), October 15

Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995, a Bosnian Serb commission said yesterday in its final report on Europe’s worst massacre of civilians since the Second World War. The panel’s vice-president said the exact number of deaths was “still an open question”.

“Serbs killed 7,000 at Srebrenica: report,” Ottawa Citizen, October 15

Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, a Bosnian Serb commission conceded yesterday in its final report on the 1995 massacre.

Muslim officials claim that up to 8,000 men and boys were killed in July 1995, when Serb troops overran the UN-declared safe zone in Europe’s worst massacre of civilians since the Second World War. Study panel vice-president Smail Cekic said his group’s figures were not final. “That is hard to achieve because differences in sources,” Mr. Cekic said.

“Bosnian Serbs Admit Massacre,” New York Times, October 16

Bosnia’s Serb Republic conceded for the first time that its forces executed more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica during the 1992-1995 civil war in the country. The admission was made in an officially sanctioned report by a panel of judges and lawyers commissioned to look into the massacre. A previous report had admitted to the involvement of Bosnian Serb troops, but put the number of deaths at just over 600.

What readers could not possibly have learned from these blurbs in the print media is that the Srebrenica Commission (if this, in fact, is what it calls itself) does not represent the first time the Republika Srpska has commissioned a study of the Srebrenica massacre, but at least the third, and that the first two reports (if not more) were rejected out-of-hand by the same Office of the High-Representative that on June 30 fired all of the non-compliant members of the Government of the Republika Srpska, and for exactly the same reason: The previous reports did not repeat the magical number 7,000 (or thereabouts) alleged to have been massacred by the old Army of the Republika Srpska back in July, 1995.

Consider the way the wire services picked up on the underlying coercive angle of this story:

“Bosnian Serbs admit scale of Srebrenica massacre for first time,” Agence France Presse, October 14

In June [2004] the Bosnian Serb government admitted that Serb forces had committed the massacre and tried to cover up the crime, but it avoided giving a definite figure on the number of victims.

In 2002 Bosnian Serb officials issued a report which minimized the number of victims, triggering outrage among survivors and the international community.

The figure of more than 7,000 victims—a number which conforms to most independent assessments—is contained in a new report the investigative commission presented to the government on Thursday.

“Bosnian Serb commission publishes final report on Srebrenica massacre,” Associated Press, October 14

Although Bosnian Serbs long have been blamed for the massacre, it was not until this past June—following the Srebrenica commission’s preliminary report—that Serb officials acknowledged for the first time that their security forces carried out the slaughter.

“Bosnian Serb authorities present report on Srebrenica massacre,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, October 14

A Bosnian Serb commission released a report Thursday detailing the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica—admitting for the first time killing more than 7,000 Bosnian Moslem men. The document, which was presented to the Bosnian Serb government, revealed the victims’ names and the locations of several mass graves in the former eastern Bosnian Moslem enclave where the atrocity took place during the 1992-1995 war. The Commission the report was not final and that the number of victims might change. The special Srebrenica Commission was formed last December under international pressure, and was tasked with revealing the truth about Srebrenica massacre and the fate of the victims. According to the State Commission on Missing Persons, Bosnian forensics have exhumed mortal remains of several thousand Srebrenica victims filling more than 7,000 bags. About 1,600 Srebrenica victims have been identified so far while more than 5,000 people from Srebrenica remain unaccounted for. Earlier this year, the international community’s high representative in Bosnia sacked 59 Bosnian Serb officials, including senior military and police officials, for hindering the work of the Srebrenica Commission.

Phrases such as the truth about Srebrenica need to be taken in a highly ideological way. It is true in virtue of its conformity with a specific narrative of the “fall of Srebrenica” that the major powers to have intervened in the former Yugoslavia have inscribed in their official records, and therefore demand that the actors in the former Yugoslavia inscribe in theirs as well. This is the governing concept of truth that the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina seeks to inculcate there through his various firings and appointments. Just as it is the juridical concept of truth that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia seeks to establish by its indictments, prosecutions, and impositions of defense counsels.

Friend of the ICTY—indeed, its bosom buddy—Michael Scharf had precisely the same concept of truth in mind when, in late August, he explained the ICTY’s “objectives” in the Washington Post (“Making a Spectacle of Himself; Milosevic Wants a Stage, Not the Right to Provide His Own Defense,” Aug. 29):

In creating the Yugoslavia tribunal statute, the U.N. Security Council set three objectives: first, to educate the Serbian people, who were long misled by Milosevic’s propaganda, about the acts of aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by his regime; second, to facilitate national reconciliation by pinning prime responsibility on Milosevic and other top leaders and disclosing the ways in which the Milosevic regime had induced ordinary Serbs to commit atrocities; and third, to promote political catharsis while enabling Serbia’s newly elected leaders to distance themselves from the repressive policies of the past. [Tribunal Judge Richard] May’s decision to allow Milosevic to represent himself has seriously undercut these aims.

Notice that this was the crux of Scharf’s argument as to why Trial Chamber III should impose defense counsel upon Slobodan Milosevic, rather than permitting Milosevic to continue to defend himself: Because Scharf believes that the people of the former Yugoslavia, and of the new state of Serbia and Montenegro in particular, need to get with the historical script, and internalize a narrative about the breakup of Yugoslavia according to which the wars of Greater Serb Aggression sprung from the head of one man, Slobodan Milosevic, like Satan from God’s. Only then will the work of the intervening parties finally be accomplished.

To this day, the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia remain immensely important to the development of post-Soviet-bloc, neocolonial structures for the management of the world, including the threat or use of force and the accompanying post-Cold War ideology in and through which the world’s management is to be articulated.

The success of the Great Powers in imposing a global narrative upon these conflicts—even in getting the actual participants in the conflicts to internalize this narrative, as we continue to witness in the show trials at the ICTY and in the Republika Srpska’s latest report on the “Srebrenica massacre”—surely counts as an achievement for the ages.

Show Tribunal. Show trials. Show History. Show historians.

Where else in history do we find it?

Postscript. Friends, providing weblinks to documents can be a problematic affair. The most important document for which I would like to provide a link at present is the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation’s Srebrenica: A “Safe” Area. Reconstruction, Background, Consequences and Analyses of the Fall of a Safe Area (2002). However, at the moment, it appears that this document—once archived online in each of its finely articulated subsections—either temporarily or permanently has been removed from the Dutch Institute’s webserver.—If someone has better information, please call it to my attention. But in the meantime, you might try hunting around Srebrenica: A “Safe” Area or Srebrenica: Een “veilig” gebied. (Good luck.)

The Fall of Srebrenica: Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to General Assembly resolution (A/54/549), November 15, 1999

The Real Slobodan Milosevic,” BBC Radio 5, October 9, 2004

Milosevic: ‘no link to genocide found’,” Chris Stephen, The Observer (London), October 10, 2004

The Milosevic Case (IT-02-54) “Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina” (ICTY Case Information Sheet)
The Prosecutor v. Slobodan Milosevic et al., Kosovo, Second Amended Indictment, Case No. IT-99-37-PT, October 16, 2001
The Prosecutor v. Slobodan Milosevic et al., Croatia, Second Amended Indictment, Case No. IT-02-54-T, October 23, 2002
The Prosecutor v. Slobodan Milosevic et al., Bosnia, Amended Indictment, Case No. IT-02-54-T, November 22, 2002

The Prosecutor v. Ljubisa Beara, Case Number IT-02-58-I, March 26, 2002

The Prosecutor v. Nasir Oric, Second Amended Indictment, Case No. IT-03-68-PT, October 1, 2004

Hague Prosecutor ‘Set War Crimes Test’ for Serbia,” Reuters, October 11, 2004

Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (homepage)
European Union Special Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (homepage)

Slobodan Milosevic: Speeches and Interviews (Homepage)

Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Neocolonial Community, ZNet Blogs (the old ones), June 30, 2004
The Milosevic Trial I, ZNet Blogs, August 31, 2004

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