War and peace: Yugoslavia, the world's failure

By Andrew Pakula | 1995-05-01 12:00:00

Driven by violent nationalism and the politics of hate, the continuing self-immolation of Yugoslavia is a milestone epic, especially given the horrendous scope and persistence of violence. It offers a harsh forewarning of a world dominated by brutal ethnic and tribal conflicts. It sets dangerous precedents condoning the seizure of territory by force and massive violations of human rights of minorities. The killing is far from over, peace is remote, and further escalation is likely, particularly an all-out war between Serbia and the Croatian-Bosnian alliance following the withdrawal of United Nations troops from Croatia at the end of March. The war could spread across the Balkan Peninsula.

When future history books are written, the disintegration of Yugoslavia will be considered a pivotal event in showing as false the notion that Europe, particularly the European Union, can act as a single political entity. It will be considered the first step in ending the relatively constructive relations between Russia and what used to be called the West. It will bring into serious question the value and utility of international organizations, particularly the U.N. and NATO. It may put to rest any notions of morality and justice in international behavior, and the exhilarating optimism and hope generated at the end of the Cold War. It will likely encourage demagogues and hate-mongers to pursue power by promoting xenophobia and practising the politics of hate. (Undoubtedly, the degree of violence of the Russian actions in Chechnya was influenced by the international response--or lack of response--in the former Yugoslavia.) Bosnia-Herzegovina, like Chechnya, will increase the alienation of the world's Muslims and strengthen the violent elements among them.

It cannot be denied that extreme nationalistic and demagogic politicians and military leaders in Serbia and, to a lesser degree, in Croatia must bear much of the responsibility for Yugoslavia's suicide. However, it is equally clear that the international political response to the conflicts was at best inadequate, at worst destructive.

It is our collective and individual responsibility, particularly in the peace and human rights community, to act vigorously to prevent the dark and cruel future defined by ethnic violence and the politics of hate. In order to do so we must undertake thoughtful analysis and seek understanding of what went wrong in the former Yugoslavia. As it says in the constitution of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), it is in our minds that war and violence begin and, therefore, it is in our minds that defences against war and violence must be constructed.

I will address the following four questions: What are the issues dividing the peace and human rights community over the causes of, and solutions to, the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia? How and why have the world's media failed to represent the realities of the situation, relying instead on myths, cliches and misconceptions and, consequently, contributed to the inadequate international response? Why have the international bodies been so tragically unsuccessful, perhaps even destructive, in intervening first in Croatia, then in Bosnia-Herzegovina? What kind of an international order needs to be created to prevent and resolve present conflicts involving minorities?

Within the international community of peace, human rights, and humanitarian aid organizations there has been un-precedented, sometimes anguished and angry contention about the causes of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, particularly Bosnia-Herzegovina, and about the means of resolving them.

Consider the views of Lynne Jones, a leading long-time peace activist, former chairperson of European Nuclear Disarmament, and one of the leaders of the occupation of the airbase at Greenham Common in England. Writing in the Summer 1993 issue of Campaign for Peace and Democracy News (Volume VII, No. 1, p. 23), she uses very strong and angry language in condemning the peace movement for "fundamental moral failure" in Bosnia-Herzegovina. She blames the movement for "silence which facilitates dialogue about nothing while [human rights] abuses continue with impunity, whereas the real understanding that is the basis of a just requires the acknowledgment of uncomfortable truths." She attacks the notion that "the war in Bosnia is a civil war....[and] that consequently all the sides are equally awful and there are no victims to protect." She objects to "the fundamentalist attitude and knee-jerk anti-interventionism." Her solution is "a non-provocative military intervention against the Serbs, with U.N. forces acting under Bosnian government control."

Some similar points are raised in an open letter to peace movements signed by activists from all parts of the former Yugoslavia, including Serbia, which appeared on the Internet last summer (web: yugo.antiwar conference, Aug. 23, 1994). In particular, the letter's authors find "upsetting [the notion of] a priori advocacy of nonviolence [given] the violent actions of Serbian irregular armies in Bosnia-Herzegovina. [It's argued that] pleading for peace is not the same as making peace, pleading for nonviolence is not the same as creating non-violence, [and] that pleading for peace and nonviolence can contribute to creating war and violence."

To a large extent the contention within the peace movement reflects an underlying tension between two fundamental belief systems. On one side, the major notion is that the polarization of the issues precludes the resolution of violent conflict because each side becomes demonized, thereby eliminating the possibility of trust and meaningful communication. This assumes that they hold incompatible perceptions of reality, and consequently, the accelerating cycle of fear, hatred, and violence, leads to more fear, hatred, violence, and so on. This perspective, associated with the attitudes of pacifism and unconditional nonviolence, focuses on the prevention, reduction, and elimination of violence by negotiation, by building trust and promoting communication, and generally by placing barriers on the escalating processes of destructive conflict.

On the other side, the emphasis is on the moral and practical necessity of recognizing the authenticity of evil, on the necessity of forceful action against evil as the very last resort, and on the distinction between aggressors and victims; between the use of force for aggression and self-defense. This is the position taken by Lynne Jones and others who think as she does. A Bosnian woman, outraged at the position taken by the proponents of unconditional pacifism and nonviolence in the context of Bosnia-Herzegovina, argued that "It's like saying that the German Nazis and the Jews during the Second World War were equally guilty, equally responsible for the Holocaust!"

Another, somewhat related, point of contention about the former Yugoslavia within the international peace movement has to do with the attitudes towards national self-determination and nationalism in general. On one side stand those who see national self-determination as a legitimate right in a democratic society. Those on the other side focus on nationalism's negative, xenophobic aspects, particularly as expressed by the ill-treatment of minorities. In Yugoslavia, the goals of self-determination, both legitimate and not, were vastly complicated by extensive geographic mixing of ethnic groups and to a lesser extent by the relatively high levels of intermarriage. The result was the horrors of ethnic cleansing and xenophobia. The idea that the Serbs can no longer live together with others, articulated in the infamous 1986 memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences Art, and taken up with vengeance by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in the pursuit of legitimacy and power, became a reality through self-fulfilling prophecy after a great deal of blood had been shed.

Finally, there is disagreement about what kind of actions peace activists should undertake in support of their goals. Many peace workers, particularly in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, object to "peace safaris"--mass actions visiting the areas of conflict, projects like "Peace Now" and "The Peace Caravan." In the previously mentioned open letter on the Internet, such actions are described as "ineffective and a waste of time. During a short period, a large number of participants can't really understand what has happened, nor articulate any political message except general opposition to war, which is commonplace. Those who come individually or in small groups and who cooperate with us on concrete projects help us much more. Hard long-term work is understood. Delusions that fast and easy solutions are possible must be rejected." Further, there was anger about the lack of planning and preparation by the visitors, particularly insufficient prior contacts with local activists.

While the international peace movements remain divided about the former Yugoslavia along the lines I discussed, it can be hoped that an understanding of the issues can bring both reconciliation and empowerment.

In both Serbia and Croatia, the regimes used the media as a powerful weapon of war and hate propaganda. For further discussion of this topic see a recently published book by Mark Thompson, Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and its review by Warren Zimmermann, former U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books (Feb. 2, 1995, p.3). What is remarkable is that independent opposition media have, in spite of massive harassment, managed to survive in Serbia and, to a lesser degree, in Croatia. In Serbia's capital, Belgrade, the survival and contributions of the magazine Vreme, TV Studio B, and B-92 Radio are remarkable, given the existing political climate, and highly encouraging for the future.

In covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia, influential, particularly Western media, generally did not provide a balanced, realistic, and unbiased coverage of the situation, and thus failed to properly inform public debate and political decision making.

Oversimplification and reductionism are key problems in the media coverage of the former Yugoslavia. In the early stages of the war in what was then-Yugoslavia, a journalist representing one of the major U.S. papers said the following to Milan Nikolic, peace activist and former dissident: "I think that your country is too small to be so complicated." Indeed, reductionism appears to be one of the dominant trends in U.S. media, with CNN, for example, mostly covering only one story--the O.J. Simpson trial--and neglecting or ignoring far more important events.

As Michael Ignatieff points out in an article in the April 21, 1994 issue of The New York Review of Books (p.3), the complexities of the situation in Bosnia were typically reduced in the media and in political debate to several dominant narratives or themes which were fundamentally false. Ignatieff describes Bosnia as "the Spanish Civil War of our era. In both instances, a legitimately elected government was challenged by an authoritarian insurrection abetted by foreign powers. When that government appealed for international intervention, its plight became a cause celebre. In both instances, that cause was pleaded in vain."

Ignatieff goes on: "All forms of moral engagement rely on narratives which turn history into a story of rights and wrongs. The cause of liberal interventionism failed in Bosnia not because intervention was too risky or too likely to fail, but because the cause itself could not make its moral narratives prevail. What is remarkable is that the true story of Bosnia--an independent country destroyed by an armed insurrection aided by a foreign power--should have been so continuously undermined by false narratives, whose effect was to diffuse and dissipate the build-up of Western outrage. Hence the story that this was the civil war, in which it was foolish to intervene. Hence the story that this was the resurfacing of ancient hatreds, which outsiders could never understand. Both story lines, assiduously propagated by the Serbs as well as by those who opposed intervention on any grounds, successfully sealed Bosnia off into the symbolic exclusion zone of a family quarrel."

Ignatieff continues, "....these counternarratives had some plausibility and they had the immeasurable attraction of letting the West off the hook. Yet they were false.

This was not essentially a civil war, because while the combatants were all members of the same state, the fighting could never have begun in the first place without the arms and the Greater Serbian ideology provided by Serbia proper. It is certainly true that what doomed Bosnia was the inability of all sides to trust each other sufficiently to allow the emergence of parties organized on non-ethnic, non-confessional lines. It was not [true] that such trust was lacking 'on the ground': all three communities were deeply interwoven by intermarriage and a shared common life.... Far from being a fatal frontier between two antithetical civilizations--Christendom and Islam--Bosnia was the place where the two had learned, over five centuries, to understand each other and to coexist. The sources of long-term historical instability in Bosnia were not internal differences per se but imperial conflict between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and, from the 1870s onward, the expansionist nationalist ambitions of neighboring states, especially Serbia. First the imperial powers, then the Serbs, and to a lesser degree the Croats began competing for the allegiance of the indigenous Bosnians, and in doing so began to divide them from each other."

Ignatieff and others also make the point that the media tended to personalize the conflict by focusing on the plight of victims of the war such as baby Irma, critically injured by shrapnel, or Bosnia's Anne Frank--Zlata Filipovic, or victims of mass rapes, or the mixed couple of young lovers shot dead by snipers while trying to escape from Sarajevo. Unfortunately, the emphasis on the victims and their reduction to symbols with little understanding of the context and causes of their plight tended to reduce both understanding and engagement. Turning again to Ignatieff: "All moral engagement personalizes: if it doesn't get personal, it doesn't last. But it is also true that if it only personalizes, it quickly dissipates. Empathy untouched by analysis, by some deeper understanding of what is at stake in a place like Bosnia quickly evaporates when the emotions get distracted, when the press and television throw up some other winsome and appealing child who seems to incarnate some other crime or cause."

In summary, I want to emphasize that these false narratives were by no means innocent as they provided the international community with the excuse for avoiding the politically difficult decision to intervene in Bosnia-Herzegovina in a meaningful way. The fact that the majority of the Bosnians were Muslims was clearly an important factor.

This discussion provides some insights into the reasons why the international response to the crisis in the former Yugoslavia and particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been a destructive and disheartening failure. At best, the engagement of the world's political organizations in the former Yugoslavia has been ineffectual. At worst, it contributed significantly to the escalation and persistence of violence.

Driven by the myths and misconceptions I just described, willful or otherwise, international mediation in the Yugoslav crisis has been plagued by inconsistency, confusion, lack of coherence, disagreements about strategy, tactics and mandate, poor coordination and planning, inadequate understanding, idle threats, and the dominant role of self-serving, short-sighted national policies driven mainly by realpolitik and nostalgia. As a result, the European Union, the U.N. and other organizations representing the international community have lost credibility with the warring factions and consequently the ability to influence events on the ground.

In the early days of the war in Croatia the crisis was defined as "Europe's problem requiring a European solution." Given the region's history of past conflicts and alliances, this notion may have precluded peaceful resolution. For example, the Serbs would not trust German soldiers to keep the peace, nor German politicians to be impartial. In the early stages of the Serbo-Croatian war, there was talk in Belgrade about the German Fourth Reich, and false rumors of German soldiers fighting together with the Croats. And yet, all the early calls for the intervention by the U.N., whose soldiers, be they Nigerian, Peruvian, or Canadian, might have been perceived as impartial, were rejected with the insistence that Yugoslavia required a strictly European solution. Maybe, just maybe, a timely intervention by U.N. peacekeepers could have prevented the great tragedy that followed.

Following the lead of Serbia's greatest past enemy, Germany, the European and other states recognized the independence of Slovenia and Croatia. Doing so without addressing the difficult problem of minorities made the continuation of the war in Croatia and its eventual escalation to Bosnia-Herzegovina pretty much inevitable. Also, members of the European Union were preoccupied with economic problems and political as well as social alienation in their societies expressed as growing racism, xenophobia, and opposition to refugees. Consequently, Europe did not speak with a single voice. Instead, the response of member states was a cacophony of inconsistent voices driven by history, realpolitik, and narrow self interests. The result was a long series of cease-fires, usually violated within hours of being signed, and total loss of credibility for the European Union and its representatives.

Many believe that contrary to its intent the political intervention of the European Union in the former Yugoslavia has resulted in the prolongation and escalation of war. Writing in Vreme, Serbia's courageous opposition journal, on Feb. 15, 1993, commentator Stojan Cerovic argued that: "Bosnia has shown that Europe does not exist, something no one here was aware of, and this greatly stimulated the war. Had this been a small skirmish, and had none wanted war, Europe's stand would have started it."

When Europe's failure became obvious, other international bodies including the U.N., the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (now the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the Western European Union, NATO, and most recently the Contact Group [the U.S., Russia, Germany, France, and the U.K] became involved. By then it was too little and too late. Divided by narrow, self-serving political considerations and lacking both resolve and resources, the agencies of the international community had no credibility with the warring factions in Bosnia and no ability to influence the progress of the war. The pattern of internal dissension, incompatible aims, and idle threats had the effect of encouraging the forces of aggression and war while destroying the spirit of thoseseeking peace and reconciliation.

The so-called U.N. exclusion zones in Bosnia-Herzegovina became a cruel joke with Serbian forces, emboldened by idle threats, attacking them at will. UNPROFOR, the U.N. troops in Bosnia to provide humanitarian aid, found themselves in the impossible position of keeping the peace that did not exist, of being hostages to and at the mercy of the Bosnian-Serb forces of aggression. Their credibility and neutrality were utterly compromised by the realities of Serbian military domination on the ground. The world's various expressed aims in Bosnia--to provide humanitarian aid, to keep the peace, to stop the war of aggression, and to punish the aggressor--were mutually incompatible. In spite of some real benefits of their humanitarian efforts, the UNPROFOR's position of either de facto siding with the aggressor against the victim or treating the two with "impartiality" was morally untenable.

It is no wonder that the Bosnians feel betrayed by the world, particularly considering the ill-conceived arms embargo which ensured the one-sidedness of the conflict and their victimization. It is no wonder that they have turned to Muslim states for help--nobody else would help them. It is not surprising that the forces of Muslim fundamentalism, be they in Algeria, Egypt, or elsewhere, are gaining support as a result of Bosnia, Chechnya, and so on. It is an enormous tragedy, with far-reaching implications, that the idea of a multinational, tolerant, pluralist Bosnia has been buried under an avalanche of hatred and violence, while the world stood by doing less than nothing. Judging by the response or lack thereof in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Chechnya it is clear that the world lacks adequate legal basis and proper organizational structures to deal with violent conflicts involving minorities. What kind of an international order needs to be created to prevent and resolve present and future Yugoslavias? What kind of lessons can be learned from its fiery death?

One clear lesson is that the primary emphasis must be on the prevention of violence. Once the shooting starts it is extremely difficult to stop. Armed conflicts are invariably characterized by fear, hatred, and violence, leading to more fear, hatred, and violence. Factors like the demonization of the enemy, selective perception, growing mistrust, and the breakdown of meaningful communication contribute to the conflict and make its peaceful resolution extremely difficult. The implication is that any intervention, military or otherwise, must be immediate before things get out of hand. This was not the case in Yugoslavia during the fateful summer of 1991.

What would be the requirements of an effective and fair international approach to the mediation, prevention, and resolution of conflicts involving minorities? First, the dramatic step would have to be taken of putting in place a legal and moral foundation establishing the primacy of individual human rights over all other considerations, including national sovereignty. A newly-created organ within the U.N. is needed having the mandate of preventing violent conflicts involving states, nations, and minorities. This approach needs to be truly integrated. In contrast to the way things currently are, the new organ's decision-making processes would be fair and free of double standards, rather than reflecting the will of a powerful country or block.

The international staff of the proposed new arm of the U.N. would be available for deployment on very short notice. It would include primarily well-trained specialists in all aspects of conflict mediation, nonviolent resolution, and international law. A small specially-trained armed force would also be maintained to be used only if all else fails for peacekeeping and peacemaking. The agency's diverse operations would be funded by a percentage of national defence budgets with the incentive of improved national and collective security. The power of such a new organ in the U.N. would be primarily based on its ability to provide graduated economic incentives and disincentives and, to a far lesser extent, on military force.

Some of the functions and projects proposed here would include: mediation, negotiation and dispute-settling mechanisms, collection of unbiased, reliable information about the situation, use of media to counteract war and hate propaganda by all sides, capability to provide graduated and meaningful economic incentives and disincentives, management of demilitarization, temporary administration of contested areas or war zones, trust building, and cooperation with and support for NGOs.

This outline is far from complete and its ideas may appear Utopian. The proposed approach is very different from what currently exists and would require truly new ways of thinking about politics and security, and about the role and functioning of the Security Council. However, without changes, the international community will be helpless in the face of future tragedies like Yugoslavia. In order to create a better world we must imagine it first.

Andrew Pakula is a management consultant and long-time peace and human rights activist.

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1995

Peace Magazine May-Jun 1995, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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