bosnia report
No. 4 February - March 1994
Women's Action on Former Yugoslavia
by Melissa Murray

It was in the winter of '92-93 that the horror of what was happening in former Yugoslavia began to come home to us. There was no way to ignore the pictures of the concentration camps with all their historical resonances of the Holocaust, or the numbing statistics of the dead, the dispossessed and the raped. As feminists we had some understanding of the particular burdens women specifically had to endure in war situations, but this was new; rape as an organised atrocity, forcible pregnancies as a weapon of ethnic cleansing. In that context it is perhaps not surprising that the women's movement were the first to organise around the issue of former Yugoslavia in Ireland.

A variety of initiatives were started, notably petitions and public meetings, the largest of which was in the Mansion House in February '93. It was one of the first occasions in Western Europe that Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian women spoke from the same platform. We also organised a separate briefing for TDs and Senators. From the beginning we recognised the importance of lobbying parliamentarians. It was at this time that Dick Spring announced the œ30,000 grant to the Rape Crisis Centre to train women from former Yugoslavia in counselling skills.

Initially WAFY was there to coordinate activities that the centrally involved organisations - the Women's Coalition, Cradle (the aid agency), The Council for the Status of Women, and Dublin Rape Crisis Centre - might initiate, but the group soon took on a life of its own. We have produced briefing documents that we have circulated to Foreign Affairs, the European Commission and UN agencies, as well as to key individuals in the Dail. We have organised street protests, addressed meetings, given educationals.

In the early summer we organised the visit of a high level multi-ethnic Bosnian Government delegation to Ireland - unfortunately, this was cancelled at the last minute, but we plan to revive the idea in the near future. Our last major event was a rally in mid-November. By emphasising the issue of massive human rights abuses, we were able to secure the support and sponsorship of a wide range of organisations, including the Green Party, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, the Union of Students in IrelanÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ̼d and the Democratic Left. It's our intention to build on that support and to deepen it.

Given the constituency we represent and also given our understanding of what would be the most useful way of mobilising Irish public and governmental support for the Bosnian people, we have always emphasised human rights, their non-negotiable preservation, as the main platform of our campaign. In doing so we were able to identify key practical issues. While we accept that there are many grave reservations about the role of the UN in the conflict, if their presence is to be of any real benefit to a terrified civilian population then they must ensure, at a minimum, that the designated safe areas are adequately protected. The siege of the cities must be lifted by whatever means necessary.

The UN has a responsibility to ensure that aid does get through in regular and sufficient quantities to all areas. The reopening of Tuzla airport is critical. The slow motion genocide of entire cities, villages, whole regions cannot continue. Hence we vehemently oppose the proposed withdrawal of UN forces, which is likely to lead to a humanitarian disaster, including widespread civilian famine.

We are also concerned that reports continue to circulate, albeit not as loudly as previously, of the existence of rape and torture camps. Because they are no longer reported in the media does not mean they have ceased to exist. UN observings be made public.

As all those concerned with basic justice will agree the establishment of the War Crimes Tribunal was a significant move. We believe that it can have an active and crucial role to play in the peace-making process. By ensuring that all those who committed atrocities, all those who ordered them, all those who incited them, of whatever ethnic background, will face the courts, the basis of civil society is re-established. Without this, reconciliation and reconstruction are impossible. Therefore there can be no amnesty, no safe havens for war crimi- nals. We are concerned to encourage the Irish Government to support this Tribunal in every way possible - in particular, through a financial contribution, which to date, despite appeals from the Tribunal, it has not offered (in contrast to Holland, Canada, the USA and a number of other countries).

Ireland is uniquely positioned to play a key role internationally on human rights. We are a small country, independent of military alliances, one of the colonised rather than a coloniser. Our experience as a nation gives us unique insights. Who is more appropriately placed than Ireland to warn of the long-term grief and conflict that can arise from the partitioning of a country? We should have spoken loudly and clearly on the long-term dangers of the Vance-Owen plan, and should oppose its even more brutal successor.

But unfortunately the Irish Government has failed to speak with distinctive voice, has failed to make any effective defence of the rights of the Bosnian people and government. Our policy has been really nothing more than a knee-jerk reiteration of a disastrous European Union policy. Despite all the rhetoric this policy is one of appeasement, of the rewarding of ethnic cleansing and the utter abandonment of a sister European state and all its people to terror, brutality and death. There are no side-lines to stand on.

"If not us, who? If not now, when?" - Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.


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