The Ghosts of Srebrenica: Protecting Civilians in Armed Conflict

Two decades have passed since General Ratko Mladic’s units of the Army of Republika Srpska killed more than 8,000 Bosniaks near Srebrenica during the Bosnian War. Srebrenica was within the borders of a “refuge», its non-combatant civilians ostensibly protected by a UN contingent which failed to confront Serbian troops. On July 11, 1995, after separating the men and boys from the women and girls, Serb units embarked on a killing spree, killing almost enough Muslim men to fill Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. Twenty years later, the memory of Srebrenica hangs over the question of the protection of civilians in the face of armed conflict.

The well-documented and publicized Srebrenica massacre was describe by the international community as genocideand by the old UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as “the worst [crime] on European soil since the Second World War. Mladic, of course, is on test in The Hague before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a Mandated by the UN ad hoc international tribunal set up to try the suspects war criminals of the Bosnian conflict, even though Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic is signaling a absence of regret Serbian for the slaughter. ICTY’s deliberate march to justice, mixed successes in political, social, economic and defense reform of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the relative peace within state borders since the war show the international community’s commitment to intervention, peacekeeping and conflict prevention.

The protection of civilians in armed conflict means many things to different people. The narrowest, military-focused definitions and the concepts encompass only international law obligation military forces pursuing an armed conflict to distinguish between legitimate military targets and protected non-combatants, and to take reasonable steps to mitigate civilian casualties of war. Counterinsurgency doctrine broadens the scope of ambition to protection of the population, beyond the requirements of international law. Even broader definitions include a call to conduct military operations in a manner that completely eliminates risk to civilians. This would include a positive obligation on military forces not only to avoid harm to civilian non-combatants, but to actively protect them from ravages of war — not merely incidental to military operations, but as primary objective. This laudable but problematic political goal takes a form like the controversial doctrine of Responsibility to protect. Probably the most achievable and realistic policy goal for the United States, its allies, and the international community lies somewhere between basic legal obligation and near-perfect standards of protecting civilians from all consequences of an armed conflict.

Whether this duty is self-imposed, whether it derives from national concepts of morality and responsibility, or whether it is externally imposed by developing norms of international law, Srebrenica is a stark reminder of the frequent failure to protect civilians from the consequences of armed conflict. International justice mechanisms such as the ICTY and its descendants, the International Penal Court — a permanent international criminal tribunal — provide some deterrence and punitive justice, but they always act after harm has been done to civilians. The international community must do more forward-looking in planning, training and organizing social organizations, national armed forces and political institutions and alliances to meet the challenge of better protecting civilians in conflict.

The global community of nations may not be able to be everything for everyone or zero the civilian casualties of war, but that should be exactly the goal – perhaps never achieved, but definitely still tempted. The Bosnian massacre reminds us of the costs of doing too little, or doing nothing at all, in the face of opportunities to protect non-combatant civilians from deliberate slaughter or inadvertent harm. We may never achieve perfection, but we should never tolerate another Srebrenica either.

Butch Bracknell is a retired naval officer and international lawyer. He is a member of the Defense Council for the Truman National Security Project and the Sorensen Institute of Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

Photo credit: openDemocracy