Seventeen years ago, on 13 July 1995, there began in the former Yugoslavia what Kofi Annan, former UN secretary general, has called the worst war crime in Europe since 1945 – the shooting by Serb forces of about 8,000 unarmed men and boys at Srebrenica. The victims’ only crime was that they were Muslims.
“By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims,” Theodor Meron, the presiding judge of the appeals chamber of the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, has declared, “the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity”. The war in the former Yugoslavia led to the killing of about 100,000 people and the displacement of more than 2 million, the vast majority Muslims.
While primary responsibility for the massacre lies with the perpetrators behind it, a secondary responsibility lies with those who could have prevented it but failed to do so. In 1992 the UN had imposed an arms embargo that stopped Bosnian Muslims exercising their inherent right to self-defence against the Serbs, who had inherited the former Yugoslavia’s army, the fourth largest in Europe.
Robert Hunter, the US ambassador to Nato from 1993 to 1998, believes that Britain was the country most responsible for preventing intervention by the UN or Nato to rescue the Bosnians. “Britain,” Hunter has said, “has a huge burden of responsibility for what happened at Srebrenica.” Responsibility for “Nato’s failure to act militarily lay in London”. When, after Srebrenica, Nato was finally authorised to conduct air strikes, the war was ended in 20 days.
The British people showed more humanity than their rulers. In April 1993, more than two out of three people in a Mori poll supported the dispatch of British troops, while in February 1994 over half wanted air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. But the foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, defended the arms embargo since lifting it would create a “level killing field”, a remark that drew from a retired Margaret Thatcher the stinging retort that there already was a “killing field the like of which I thought we would never see in Europe again […] It is in Europe’s sphere of influence. It should be in Europe’s sphere of conscience”.
In addition, Britain’s borders were closed to refugees since their interests, Hurd argued, “would put pressure on the warring factions to treat for peace”, the implication being that the refugee problem would force the Bosnians – the victims – to surrender. Britain’s stance had become that of the priest who passed by on the other side in the parable of the good Samaritan.
It is time, surely, to end the polite silence that has so far attended Hurd’s conduct of this country’s foreign affairs during the conflict. The Srebrenica massacre offers a dreadful warning of the dangers of a “realist” foreign policy that ignores the fundamental values holding liberal democracies together.
In March 1999 the Blair government took a quite different view of Balkan affairs, pressing Nato to commit troops to Kosovo to counter the threat of genocide against Albanian Muslims. This led rapidly to the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, denounced for dragging his nation into a war it could not win.
In April 1999 Blair defended his foreign policy in an important speech in Chicago. “We need,” he declared, “to enter a new millennium where dictators know that they cannot get away with ethnic cleansing or repress their people with impunity.” In Kosovo, Britain was “fighting not for territory, but for values”. The “principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects”. We needed “a new doctrine of international community” to give “explicit recognition that today more than ever before, we are mutually dependent”. In consequence, we had a right, if not a duty, to intervene to prevent genocide, to deal with “massive flows of refugees” that become “threats to international peace and security”, and to combat rogue states.
These ideas have now been embodied in the 2005 UN initiative, Responsibility to Protect, based on the principle that sovereignty is not a right but a responsibility. It is this principle that David Cameron and William Hague adopted in Libya, and seek to adopt in Syria.
In 2004 the Serbian president Boris Tadic apologised to Bosnia-Herzegovina for crimes committed in the name of Serbia; and in March 2010, the Serb parliament issued a declaration “condemning in strongest terms the crime committed in July 1995 against Bosniak population of Srebrenica”. Kofi Annan also has apologised for the UN’s policy of “amoral equivalence”. But there has been no apology from Douglas Hurd, even though British policy in Bosnia implicated Britain in the worst atrocity Europe has seen since the Holocaust.
Vernon Bogdanor is research professor at the Institute of Contemporary History, King’s College London. His books include The New British Constitution, and The Coalition and the Constitution.