Bystanders to Mass Murder

Author: Samantha Power
Uploaded: Friday, 26 April, 2002

In a powerful article in The Washington Post, Samantha Power argues that the resignation of the Dutch government over Srebrenica should encourage other governments, notably that of the United States, to examine their own responsibility for the 1995 massacre


Last week, for the first time in history, a Western government resigned because it was a bystander to genocide. On Tuesday the popular Dutch prime minister, Wim Kok, and his cabinet stepped down in response to a 7,600-page report that faulted the Dutch government and army for sending a flimsy posse of some 400 Dutch peacekeepers on an ‘ill-conceived and virtually impossible' mission to protect Bosnian Muslims in the U.N. safe area of Srebrenica.

In July 1995 the safe area became the most dangerous spot on earth when Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic strolled into town. After meeting little resistance from Dutch soldiers on the ground or NATO bombers overhead, Mladic presided over a 10-day killing spree, systematically executing every Muslim man and boy he could lay his hands on -- more than 7,000 in all. Kok, who was prime minister at the time of the massacre, reportedly burst into tears when he read the Dutch report. Kok's resignation marked the first time in our age of genocide when an outside power has paid a tangible political price for its sins of omission. It is a refreshing act that testifies to the tirelessness of Dutch journalists and citizens.

But on this side of the ocean, the move was greeted by silence -- a silence that is in fact the trademark of American policy before, during and after genocide. Neither the United States nor any of the Security Council powers that ordered the creation of the safe areas and then abandoned Srebrenica's civilians in their hour of need have stepped forward to shoulder their portion of the blame for the massacre. ‘The international community is big and anonymous,' Kok told the Dutch parliament. ‘We are taking the consequences of the international community's failure in Srebrenica.'

I spent several years investigating the Clinton administration's response to Srebrenica, analysing an ad hoc assortment of declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and conducting some 50 interviews with U.S. officials involved in shaping this country's Bosnia policy. Even this unofficial inquiry yielded startling evidence of extensive American knowledge of
the peril to Srebrenica's Muslims: Senior Clinton administration officials knew the safe areas were likely to come under attack. Indeed, several expressed private hope that the Muslim territory would fall into Serb hands, because it would facilitate the partition of the country.

Once Mladic seized Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, American policymakers were keenly aware that the men and boys were being separated from the women and children, that Dutch soldiers were barred from supervising the ‘evacuation,' and that the Muslims' fate lay in the hands of Mladic, the local embodiment of ‘evil'.

U.S. officials received hysterical phone calls from leading members of the Bosnian government who pleaded with Washington to use NATO air power to save those in Mladic's custody. One July 13 classified cable related the ‘alarming news' that Serb forces were committing ‘all sorts' of atrocities. On July 17 the CIA's Bosnia Task Force wrote in its classified daily report that refugee reports of mass murder ‘provide details that appear credible.' In a July 19 confidential memorandum, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck described ‘credible reports of summary executions and the kidnapping and rape of Bosnian women.'

Yet, despite this knowledge, neither President Clinton nor his top advisers made the fate of the men and boys an American priority. The president issued no public threats and ordered no contingency military planning. Spokesman Nick Burns told the Washington press corps that the United States was ‘not a decisive actor' in the debate over how to respond. The most powerful superpower in the
history of mankind had influence only ‘on the margins,' in Burns's words. Because more intimate knowledge of Mladic's designs would have been inconvenient, senior U.S. officials ordered neither a change in the flight pattern of American satellites snapping images overhead nor the reassignment of intelligence analysts. Toby Gati, assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research at that time, recalls: ‘We weren't analyzing these pictures in real times for atrocity; we were analyzing whether NATO pilots were vulnerable.' Another official remembers, ‘Once the men were in Mladic's custody, we forgot about them because we knew we could no longer address their futures.'
Three precious weeks passed after the safe area's fall before a senior official ordered a sustained review of satellite images gathered the previous month to confirm rumors that Srebrenica's Muslims had indeed been murdered. By then virtually all of Mladic's captives were dead and (hastily) buried.

After the massacre, neither the Clinton team nor Congress looked back. I have found no evidence that Clinton commissioned an internal after-action review of the U.S. response to Srebrenica. The Senate had individual members -- Joseph Biden, Bob Dole, Joseph Lieberman, John McCain and others -- who took principled stands throughout the Bosnian war, urging intervention. But Congress never summoned Clinton administration officials to Capitol Hill to publicly answer for being bystanders to mass murder.

When the United Nations conducted its own Srebrenica inquiry in 1998, its investigators say, Clinton administration officials did not return their phone calls. The U.N. team was granted access only to a group of hand-picked junior and mid-level officials who revealed next to nothing. Dutch investigators complained that they met a similar stone wall in Washington. Holland has looked inward because its troops were there. But America's distance from the crime scene is not an alibi. It is a source of shame.

The Bush administration has a unique opportunity to look backward in order to move forward. By reviewing thousands of still-classified government documents and debriefing officials from the intelligence community, State Department, Pentagon and Clinton administration, it can follow the Dutch lead and establish the facts of how and why the United States chose to look away from the largest single act of genocide in Europe in 50 years. If the president won't do it, Congress must take the lead, as this kind of accountability can help shape the calculus -- and change the behavior -- of future generations of U.S. officials. The United States remained disengaged from Srebrenica even while our bombers were flying overhead and our politicians were well briefed. It is time Washington broke the silence and shared the responsibility.


Samantha Power is the author of 'A Problem from Hell': America and the Age of Genocide, published last month. This comment appeared in The Washington Post, 21 April 2002
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