Srebrenica and the ICTY

Last week was the 25th anniversary of one of the worst atrocities in the world, and the first in Europe, since the Second World War. From July 11th through the 22nd, over 8,000 men and boys were rounded up and massacred in and around the town of Srebrenica, in present day Bosnia-Herzegovina. The victims were targeted Serbian paramilitary forces for being Bosniaks, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that were among the peoples vying for an independent state following the collapse of Yugoslavia.

The crimes in Srebrenica were part of the broader Yugoslav Wars that broke out almost as soon as Yugoslavia began to unravel in the early 1990s. Over the span of a decade, several different conflicts broke out, most characterised by indiscriminate slaughter, the targeting of civilians, war rape, and other crimes against humanity. Many concepts and principles in international law, particularly with respect to criminal and human rights law, were refined or developed in relation to wars; the term “ethnic cleansing” originated as a euphemism among the perpetrators of crimes like Srebrenica.

Having studied genocide and political violence in undergrad, and international criminal and human rights law in law school, Srebrenica is deeply seared into my mind. As my time and willpower are both short in short supply, I’ll focus on the sole bit of justice and redemption for humanity that emerged from this decade-long horror show: the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), established by the United Nations specifically to address crimes like Srebrenica perpetrated during the conflict.

ICTY logo.svg
Official logo of the ICTY
The Tribunal’s headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands

The Yugoslav War had just started when the Tribunal was created, and the massacre at Srebrenica would not occur for another two years. The idea of prosecuting crimes committed, or yet to be committed, in the former Yugoslavia had been proposed by Germany—the last country to be subjected to a war crimes tribunal, at Nuremberg after WWII, up until that point. Remarkably, all fifteen members of the UN Security Council agreed to set up a special court that would try perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is hard to imagine such unanimity today.

Of course, there is something deeply grim about the UN—and even its most powerful members—failing to prevent or stop these horrific crimes, yet setting up a court to address them in the meantime. But as any student of international relations knows, such as the power of state sovereignty, the principle that no country should interfere in the affairs of others accept in the most extreme circumstances (i.e., a world war). Among other reasons, the horrors in the former Yugoslavia were probably just too contained in these small, newly-minted countries for any country to be willing to risk the money and troops (a problem we’re all too familiar with years later, given the continuing bloodletting in Syria).

But, as The Economist and others have pointed out, the ICTY, though too little and too late in its prosecutions, did bring justice to virtually all those who planned, led, aided, or were involved in the atrocities at Srebrenica and elsewhere. It’s difficult to overstate how remarkable it was the such an institution was every established, let alone allowed to do its work, even by the most powerful global interests.

As the Bosnian war ground on and Serb forces besieged Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, foreign powers could not agree how to respond. No one wanted to send troops to separate the parties. But they all approved the prosecution of war criminals, so backed the establishment of the tribunal. At first the court, based in The Hague, had little money. It also had no police of its own to arrest anyone indicted. But over the years its influence increased. It demanded that the Balkan states and others carry out arrests, and also got help from NATO-led peacekeepers in Bosnia. It succeeded in making the handing over of those indicted a political issue, with sanctions slapped on Serbia and Croatia when they dragged their feet.

Some of its achievements were legal and some political. Several of the most evil of the wartime actors were imprisoned. The tribunal gave victims and civilians a voice, and often justice, in a way that would not otherwise have been possible. It created new legal precedents. Sexual violence is now considered a war crime. It established the groundwork for other courts, including those that looked into horrors committed in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Its 2.5m pages of transcripts provide an extraordinary archive. It established that genocide had taken place when some 8,000 Bosniaks (Muslims) were murdered as Srebrenica fell. To weigh against all this there must be the acknowledgment that many believe that justice was not always done. The hopes that many had for the tribunal have at times been disappointed. It did not accelerate the process of reconciliation. Many believe there was interference, from America and elsewhere, in its work. In cases related to Kosovar Albanians, in particular, prosecutors alleged witness-tampering.

According to Eric Gordy, a sociologist at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, the court tried to end impunity for war crimes and in this “it was partially successful”. It was founded at a time when there was still some consensus about the need for this. Now, sadly, that is no longer the case. There is no international tribunal indicting anyone for war crimes in Syria. Russia and America are among those countries that have either withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the ICC or never ratified its statute. It remains to be seen whether the Yugoslav tribunal will become a relic from a more hopeful time or a trailblazer in a cause that was always bound to suffer setbacks.

For my part—and I say this as a privileged Westerner who is not even remotely impacted by these events—I believe the ICTY was a success. It indicted 161 individuals, from common soldiers all the way to prime ministers. Ninety defendants were convicted and sentenced, including the main perpetrators of the Srebrenica massacre.

On a broader level, the Tribunal developed international law and justice more substantively than any body since Nuremberg. , until very recently, it was the only court judging crimes committed as part of the Yugoslav conflict. Its lengthy and highly detailed proceedings helped gather and establish extensive facts about the horrors committed. Thousands of victims gained justice and a voice, including a myriad of eye witnesses, survivors, and the loved ones of victims. Several concepts in international criminal and human rights law were fleshed out or adjudicated for the first time. Many of the Tribunal’s decisions and findings would go on to influence national and international courts worldwide, including the tribunal established in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide.

Justice delayed is still justice served, for whatever that is worth. The Tribunal has not been without its criticism and shortcomings. It does not make up for the overall indifference and cynicism of the international community, which has hardly improved. And it certainly does not restore the hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed or traumatized in the former Yugoslavia, with survivors still shattered and wounded. But for much of human history, the very concept of a war crime—let alone prosecuting one—was alien. Indiscriminate looting, rape, and slaughter were acceptable against enemies or conquered peoples, broadly construed. The arc of progress, of human morality and fairness, is long, slow, and rarely linear. So many people have suffered and died along the way, and I shudder to think how many more will until crimes like Srebrenica are no more.

Bosnian Serb leader denies genocide in Srebrenica massacre
How much longer until this becomes a thing of the past?

Germany Commences the First Yazidi Genocide Trial

It is fitting that Germany should lead the way in prosecuting and trying alleged perpetrators of the horrific genocide against the Yazidis in Iraq. According to Just Security:

On April 24, 2020, six years after the Islamic State (IS) began persecuting and exterminating the Yazidi, the first ever trial addressing genocide against the religious minority will commence in Frankfurt am Main. In this case, as in the first case addressing state torture in Syria against two former Syrian intelligence officers whose trial started in Koblenz today, the complications of prosecuting mass crimes in third states collide with the long-awaited hope for accountability.

Iraqi national Taha Al J. is accused of having trafficked human beings for the purpose of labor exploitation and having cruelly killed a person as a member of IS. The suspect is charged under the Code of Crimes Against International Law (CCAIL) – the 2002 implementation of the Rome Statute into German criminal law – for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

The article gets into the grim details of the charges, but suffice it to say that they are deeply disturbing. The brutal campaign against the Yazidis has claimed thousands of lives, forced tens of thousands more from their ancient homeland, and has left an estimate 3,200 women and girls in sexual slavery. Even with Islamic State on the retreat, justice for the Yazidis and other victims remains elusive—hopefully not for long.

It is a testament to Germany’s commitment to international justice that it has implemented the principle of universal jurisdiction, in which a country or international organization (such as an international court), claims criminal jurisdiction over someone regardless of where the crime occured and whether the individual has any relationship. The idea is that some crimes are so serious, such as genocide or crimes against humanity, that they are inherently international in nature—they harm humanity as a whole and should not be tolerated.

As Just Security notes, the trial is remarkable for several reasons. Aside from being the first to address the crimes against the Yazidis, it is also the first trial to take place under universal jurisdiction, and to charge the crime of genocide under the CCAIL, which was enacted 18 years ago. Here’s hoping it isn’t the last.

The Anniversary of Porajmos

On this day in 1943, Heinrich Himmler—one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, and the main architect of the Holocaust—ordered that people of full or part Romani ancestry (a.k.a. gypsies) were to be put “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps”.

Thus began the systematic extermination of Romani people all over Europe, resulting in 220,000 to 500,000 deaths—a quarter to nearly half the total population—though some figures put the death toll as high as 1.5 million. This event is sometimes known as the “Porajmos”, meaning “the Devouring”.

Himmler’s order was the culmination of the racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which classified Gypsies, like Jews, as “enemies of the race-based state”, ripping away their German citizenship accordingly. It also reflected centuries of hatred and antipathy towards the Romani.

Better known as Gypsies—after Egypt, which was believed to be their origin—the Romani or Roma people (to use their proper name) actually arrived in Europe and the Middle East from northern India over a millennium ago; many still retain some Hindu beliefs, customs, and symbolism, and speak a language related to Hindi. (Moreover, tens of millions of Indians maintain a similar nomadic lifestyle.)

Like the Jews, the Romani were regarded as an alien race, inherently strange, untrustworthy, degenerate, and devious. In some of the earliest records, they are described as satanically inspired wizards—hence the trope of the Gypsy curse or fortune teller. Depending on the time and place—or whether people needed a scapegoat—the Romani were either grudgingly tolerated, or chased out and killed. They were often subject to similar discriminatory laws and treatment, including enslavement, forced assimilation, separation from their children, and pogroms. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S., Argentina, and other settler countries. There is even a term for hatred towards them that is equivalent to anti-Semitism: Antiziganism.

Thus, as with the Jews, the Nazis simply tapped into a long-existing prejudice that was widespread and deeply rooted throughout Europe, which is why so many Europeans collaborated in rounding up, imprisoning, and killing them. It is believed part of the impetus for their mass targeting was the heavy resistance they posed to Nazi occupiers, especially as nomadic peoples who were often not well documented in national census data.

Unfortunately, it was their widespread invisibility that partly explains why Romani remain relatively forgotten, despite being one of the Nazi’s biggest targets. Overall records of their population before the Holocaust are sparse or unreliable, and after the war few gave them any mind; West Germany did not recognize them as victims of the Holocaust until 1982. Some scholars also attribute this to Romani culture, which is “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others”. Others blame the effects of pervasive illiteracy, the lack of social institutions, and rampant discrimination to this day, which has deprived the Romani of “national consciousness” and historical memory.

Pictured are Romani people being round up by German police in 1940; most were likely still detained, and thus later killed, following Himmler’s order.


The World’s Most Infamous Genocide is Quickly Being Forgotten

After over seventy years of proclaiming “never forget”– which goes hand in hand with ensuring that we stay true to “never again” — society is increasingly losing sight of that mantra, according to a survey released on Holocaust Remembrance Day this past April and reported by the New York Times: Continue reading

The Countries Most at Risk of Genocide

The Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a think tank connected to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has created a tool called the Early Warning Project that aims to forecast the risk of state-sanctioned mass killings around the world. The following map displays the countries with the greatest probability of succumbing to genocide.

Courtesy of Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum / Washington Post

Most of the countries at risk of government-sponsored murder are in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The ten most troubling hot spots identified by the center are as follows: Continue reading

The 20th Century’s First Genocide

If you ask most people what the first modern genocide was, they would point to either the Holocaust carried out over the course of the 1940s, or the increasingly better-known Armenian Genocide of that began in 1915.

But the first systematic mass murder of an entire people to kick off an unfortunate slew of others began in a backwater German colony in southeast Africa: the Herero and Namaqua Genocide, also known as the Namibian Genocide.

As The Guardian points out, not only did this extermination campaign have all the characteristics of its successors (though the term genocide would not be invented until decades later), but it was disturbing prescient:

The Namibian genocide, 1904-1909, was not only the first of the 20th century; in so many ways, it also seemed to prefigure the later horrors of that troubled century. The systematic extermination of around 80% of the Herero people and 50% of the Nama was the work both of German soldiers and colonial administrators; banal, desk-bound killers. The most reliable figures estimate 90,000 people were killed.

In the case of the Herero, an official, written order – the extermination order – was issued by the German commander, explicitly condemning the entire people to annihilation. After military attempts to bring this about had been thwarted, the liquidation of the surviving Herero, along with the Nama people, was continued in concentration camps, a term that was used at the time for the archipelago of facilities the Germans built across Namibia. Some of the victims of the Namibian genocide were transported to those camps in cattle trucks and the bodies of some of the victims were subjected to pseudoscientific racial examinations and dissections.

Granted, the eradication of entire peoples is a sadly regular occurrence in human history: though a modern phenomenon both conceptually and etymologically, one could find genocide-style killings going back millennia, from the Assyrian Empire‘s conquests in the first half of the first millennium BCE, to the complete destruction of Carthage by Rome following the Third Punic War, the consequences of the Mongol invasions, and the various resettlements and forced migrations of indigenous inhabitants during the age of colonization; some have suggested that even Neanderthals were driven into extinction, in part, by human violence.

It appears genocide is less a 20th century development and more a result of an inherently human moral failing. If the 21st century is any indication, this scourge upon our species has yet to disappear, even if we have gotten better at identifying at condemning it on principle.

Hotel Rwanda and Just War Theory

Hotel Rwanda is a 2004 American drama film that tells the true story of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) and his efforts to save his fellow citizens from the Rwandan Genocide that transpired in the spring of 1994.

The film begins by showing the rising political tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups of Rwanda, which quickly culminates in an outbreak of mass violence and genocide. During the course of these worsening events, Rusesabagina and other protagonists are forced to come to terms with an unprecedented scale of violence, while at the same time trying to do what they can to save hundreds of fellow citizens who have no sanctuary.

Through the resourceful use of his hotel and its supplies, his own personal savvy, and a network of allies, Rusesabagina eventually succeeds in saving his family (which is part Tutsi, the targeted minority) along with over a thousand refugees – albeit not without facing traumatizing circumstances, many close calls, and loss of nearly a million fellow Rwandans by the end of the conflict.

The film explores several ethical, philosophical, and political themes. There is the altruism and moral obligation that Rusesabagina displays towards strangers who are not of his ethnic group (and the subsequent risks he takes to help them), the sense of hopelessness in trying to save lives with few resources and little international support, the moral breakdown of society as Rwandans violent turn on their neighbors and fellow citizens.

Indeed, a recurring element throughout the film was the sense of abandonment and shock felt by the protagonists at the world’s apathy to such a grave moral plight. This is highlighted by the presence of both the Red Cross and United Nations Peacekeepers, both of which are overburdened and unprepared for the crisis – and both of which serve as proxies for the global community. The inability of these organizations to intervene – particularly the peacekeepers, who cannot act without official authorization (which never comes) – serves as a stark reminder of the world’s moral failure. The protagonists are forced to make due with what they can, and to survive overwhelming odds on their own.

One of the central philosophical questions raised by the film – and the real-life genocide it is based on – is whether the UN, United States, and other countries should have intervened militarily to put a stop to the genocide. Would doing so have been just? Or were there good reasons not to?

By my reasoning, military intervention was a moral imperative that should have been undertaken. When analyzing the criteria for a just war, such an intervention fits perfectly: clearly, the cause is just, as hundreds of thousands of innocent people were being massacred by the state and its militias. Rwanda was not in the midst of a civil war pitting two militarized political factions, which would be a comparatively more ambiguous scenario; rather, it was enduring a one-sided slaughter on the scale of genocide.

In this respect, comparative justice would also have been met. Given the scale of death of unarmed civilians, the killing of the genocide’s perpetrators would have been an acceptable cost, especially as the film showed that mere bribery and blackmail was often sufficient to deter the genocide brigades – thus it could be argued that the mere presence of armed troops from foreign nations would serve largely as a deterrence without the need to kill.

As such, both the probability of success and the proportionality of the response would also have been acceptable. As shown in the film, the Rwandan state was very corrupt and susceptible to bribery, and most of the genocide perpetrators were relying on small arms and machetes to carry out their campaign – there were no tanks, plans, or advanced weaponry involved. The element of a single national military (if not several) could easily rout and intimidate such ragtag and corrupt forces.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the United Nations officially holds that the formal recognition of a genocide obligates member states to intervene out of moral duty – cynically, however, this was why many states were not willing to identify what transpired as a genocide, despite clear evidence that a minority group was being explicitly targeted for extermination for its identity (one of the main recognized criterion for a genocide).

The need for a competent authority to lead the effort would also have been easily met. Aside from the governments of various nation states (many of which would ostensibly be developed democracies like the US) mandates and resolutions sanctioned by the UN are viewed in international law as legitimate sources of authority. A UN resolution to permit military action would have sufficed, especially as the UN had already legitimized the presence of peacekeepers in the country through another mandate.

Finally, even taking all these guidelines into account, would intervention have been a last resort? Given that at least some of the perpetrators, including their leaders, were pliable to corruption (albeit only to a point) it’s possible that negotiations or financial bargaining could have been sufficient in stopping the conflict peacefully. But given the presence of extremists willing to kill hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, it seems unlikely that there wouldn’t be a need for some degree of military action. Considering the many unarmed, civilian lives at stake, resorting to military intervention would’ve been the least bad option.

So in short, I believe a military intervention to stop the Rwandan Genocide would have been just, given that such an action can follow all the parameters and prerequisites of just war theory.

As for why this genocide began in the first place, it was a convergence of several factors (some of which were explored in the film): mainly, it emerged due to a history of ethnic hostility and rivalry stemming from colonial preferences for the minority Tutsis over the other majority Hutus, the latter of which had their fears of Tutsi domination stoked by opportunists and paranoid extremists. As shown in Hotel Rwanda, economic and political insecurity, a lack of civil society, and rampant corruption only heightened the level of fear and hate that often leads breeds violence. Indeed, every genocide that has ever occurred – including the most infamous one of all – was triggered or intensified by economic, political, and social problems (indeed, the genocide occurred very shortly after a civil war between factions of both ethnic groups). The subsequent mass panic is put upon a minority group with which there are preexisting animosities, and from there violence ensues.

What Keeps Me Up At Night

It seems as if I’m starting a trend with topics that cause me to feel psychological and emotional discomfort. I hope no one tires of this, as I fear it may become too redundant or somber for some of my readers (if not already). In my defense, this blog was intended to intersect subjects that are both personal matters and of general interest to me. More often than not, there is an intersection of the two.

This is just such an instance. Last night, as I trawled through my pipeline of news reports, columns, and articles (a nightly ritual), I came across a brief but deeply disturbing post in Foreign Policy about the Srebrenica Massacre that transpired during the Bosnian War of the mid-1990s.

That entire conflict entailed a horrific genocide that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. Like most victims of genocide, they were mostly targeted for nothing more than being of the wrong ethno-religious group (in this case, Bosnian Muslim, or Bosniak) at the wrong time.

That is precisely what makes genocide the most unsettling manifestation of human evil: aside from the sheer scale of the slaughter, the act is driven by a collective and deep-seated homicidal hostility to the existence of a particular group of people. While there are certainly other dynamics at play – fear, misunderstanding, a sense of vengeance, and so on – the idea that individuals would come together in order to concertedly wipe out an entire people is horrifying on an unprecedented level. What’s it like to relate with that kind of mentality? What’s it like to live within such a bloodthirsty and hateful collective?

Most importantly, what’s it like to be the victim? That’s precisely what columnist Matt Dobbs asked when he described, in grim detail, the fate of six young men who were taunted and abused before being executed in cold-blood. It was all caught on a graphic video, hyperlinked in the article, which speaks horrifying volumes about the level of callousness of the perpetrators. They were completely dispassionate about what they were doing. Taking innocent lives, and inflicting physical and mental abuse to top it off, meant nothing to them. The only emotions they displayed were satisfaction, pride, and borderline glee.

Reflecting on this hasn’t helped my psyche, to say the least. It deeply saddens me to know that what transpired in that footage is hardly an isolated incident. It’s happened before, is happening now, and will keep on happening for the foreseeable future. What exactly goes through these people’s minds – I mean both the victims and their killers – in the moments leading up to acts like this? I can’t even begin to comprehend the intense fear and disbelief, the sense of powerlessness over their fate. I’m certain the converse is true of most of their killers: they feel fulfillment and power.

It’s these sorts of reflections that tormented me last night, and that will no doubt continue to do so for some time. I’ve been reading and studying this sobering material for nearly a decade now, and for the most part I’m more detached and tolerant of it than many people would be; but I am only human, and our minds can only take in so much suffering and senseless pain before they start to feel some residual agony as well.

The only time I sleep well is when I accept my supreme fortune in having a warm bed to sleep in, and how I should be grateful enough to make the most of it. That’s about the only silver lining I can derive from any of this. My flirtations with misanthropy and depression become greater by the day it seems. It’s a cycle I’m becoming accustomed to, and I’m not ashamed to air that out. Can anyone else relate to some degree?

Holocaust Remembrance Day

It almost slipped me by, but today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a globally-recognized memorial day for the  millions of people that were systematically butchered in the world’s largest genocide. It was established by the UN only in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, when the Nazi concentrations camps were liberated.

It’s hard to fathom death on such a large-scale. A loss of single human being is tragic enough, but imagine multiplying that agony by 10 to 17 million, the overwhelming majority of whom were targeted for the crime of being born into the wrong ethnicity, faith, or sexual orientation at the wrong time. Each of them was an independent human life – they had names, dreams, loved ones, experiences, plans for the future. All of them ceased to exist within only six years. The speed and brutality was to such a horrifying extent that the term genocide was created as to describe it – mass murder simply couldn’t capture it all well-enough.

It may have been the largest and most infamous case of genocide, but it wasn’t the last, nor was it even the first. People have probably been systematically wiping each other out since we first broke off into tribes and distinct ethnic groups. Cases of ethnic cleansing come and go with brutal regularity.

Since the Holocaust, we’ve had notorious incidents in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as little-known cases in East Timor, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Congo, Guatemala, and still elsewhere. Then there are the pre-Holocaust cases such as the Armenian Genocide, the Holodomor, and the various massacres of indigenous people throughout centuries of European colonization. Most of these tragedies remain unknown or underrated, even by some academics.

I hope to live long enough to see this awful and recurring trend cease once and for all. While systematic violence and murder of the Holocaust’s scale no longer exist, we still have a long way to go before the hatred, ignorance, and fear that underpins these actions is extinguished – if that ever happens. I hope never again really comes to mean something.