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STOLTENBERG’S CO-RESPONSIBILITY FOR SREBRENICA
BY ARNE JOHAN VETLESEN
In connection with the fact that it has been 10 years since the massacre in the UN-declared “safe zone” of Srebrenica, mid-June 1995, Thorvald Stoltenberg’s ( b. 1931, Norwegian diplomat and politician, holding several minister posts for the labour party, from 1993 UN’s peace mediator in Yugoslavia) role as a peace mediator has come into focus. Stoltenberg has been given the chance once more to explain what took place and how he evaluates the part played by himself during the course of events. And he has asserted once more that he finds no reason to blame himself for anything.
way of mediating for the UN, allows us to see some important
facts about the dominant approach of the Western countries to the
“civil wars” in the Balkans. As well as representing this
Stoltenberg was personally qualified for the job. He worked at the
embassy in Beograd early in the 1960’s, spoke Serbo-Croatian and
holding central positions in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Up until the
death of Tito in
the light of later events, one is able to discern how this historical
ballast became more of a disadvantage than a resource to
performance as a negotiator. Like the surrounding world in general, he
totally unprepared for ethnic conflict of the kind that broke loose in
When evaluating Stoltenberg’s role today, we must take the general climate of the 1980’s and -90’s into account. A central key word is relativism. There are no Truths with a capital T, nothing is either black or white, rather every phenomenon is to be regarded in a non-essentialist way as being ambiguous and complex, enabling one to be tolerant and to endure ambivalence. Every event must be subject to interpretation, and the diversity and manifoldness of the interpretations reflect the particularity of the interpreters, all of whom are coloured by their particular point of view and their way of experiencing an event. Since there is no Truth, and since everyone has the right to interpret the world from his or her specific point of view, everyone affected by a particular event must enjoy an equal right to articulate his or her opinion and to be listened to. Since there are no privileged points of view (which would imply oppression, marginalization and intolerance), no one has the right to judge that someone else is mistaken; a signal of Besserwissen and cockiness of an outdated kind in an age when every established authority must be challenged.
During the Balkan wars, the relativism I have described in philosophical-intellectual terms (which – misinterpreted or not – bears an unmistakable resemblance to “deconstruction” à la Derrida) was shown to extend beyond the limits of the seminar rooms. Relativism was transferred from the domain of esoteric theory to the field of applied politics. It became the dominant perspective of state leaders such as Clinton, Mitterand and Major. In its new suit, relativism amounted to a moral equalization between the so-called “parties” of a given conflict, in casu: between Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Ex-Yugoslavia.
implications of these events are deep and extensive,
although a lot has changed dramatically after
There are several causes of the marriage of intellectual relativism to the international diplomacy, which cannot be addressed here. Yet there is one central element that must be mentioned – the traditional diplomatic fixation on impartiality and neutrality, the credo of the mediators being “as mediators we must always talk to all of the parties; the small progress we are able to make in this manner is preferable to the losses a military intervention would bring about”. The logic common to diplomats, officers and intellectuals is persuasively simple and apparently unassailable: A one-sided and decisive intervention by means of force is necessarily directed against the party whose actions one aims to stop. Thus directed against one particular party, against this party’s consent, the intervention amounts to taking a stand, against one party and for the other or others. Hence one’s impartiality has been abandoned, and one loses the party one positions oneself against as a future party for cooperation and consent, and for further humanitarian work to which the UN as a neutral organ, is obligated.
I see it, the
approach of the West to the course of events in
What does the case of Bosnia in general and Srebrenica in particular teach us? Firstly, while impartiality and neutrality are being praised as diplomatic virtues, like complexity and ambiguity are praised as intellectual ones, all these virtues are – at least potential – vices in situations of being faced with, and being responsible for judging, the phenomenon of genocide. Genocide – the attempt to extinguish a particular group of individuals, defined by their race, nationality, gender, religious beliefs or ethnicity – is the absolute crime, the immoral action par excellence, and it demands a reply which corresponds to the absoluteness of the acts and intentions of the aggressor. The only reply that would have had such a corresponding, and effectively preventive, effect in the case of Srebrenica would have been a military intervention towards the aggressor to save the victims from the fate they would suffer if left in the hands of the aggressor.
General Ratko Mladic knew what he was doing when he planned and carried out the massacre of Bosnian-Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica. He had more than three years of experience (from negotiations with Stoltenberg amongst others – even while Srebrenica was being attacked) to base his calculations on – that he would succeed in taking the UN-declared «safe zone» without being countered by the military of the third parties on the ground or from the air. He calculated that he would manage to separate, in Auschwitz fashion, men from women, that he would get all the days he needed transport the 8 000 selected victims in trucks and buses out of the centre of Srebrenica, partially by using Dutchbat’s fuel and by dressing his own forces in Dutch UN uniforms and equipping them with speaking-trumpets, so that those who tried to escape into the forest could be brought to surrender themselves to UN «safety». He calculated that he would succeed in accomplishing exactly what he had come for – the greatest massacre on European soil since the Second World War – without being stopped on his way and without being arrested and punished in the aftermath, that he would be given free scope to humiliate the UN, the EU, NATO – the international community – in the most impudent and hideous way. In brief, that his genocidal act would succeed with impunity and that the entire world would be passive bystanders, on the spot as well as in the intelligence and the media.
Thus far I have discussed the course of events from a principled point of view. But how should we evaluate the part played by Stoltenberg?
When Stoltenberg and I discussed Srebrenica ten years after the event, on the 11th of July 2005, on Dagsnytt Atten (Norwegian news programme), he said: «Since the UN allowed Bosniak bases inside the zone, it was a reasonable assumption that there would be shootings towards the zone once it was possible to shoot out of it» (quoted from memory).
is a remarkable way to describe the course of events – although not to
Stoltenberg. For he remains faithful to his own perspective and his own
acting, regardless, it seems, of the
years going by, of the number of other actors who criticize themselves
public (more or less convincingly). After having witnessed countless
on NRK (Norwegian stately owned TV
channel) and in the newspapers and two memoir books, I still
one single of Stoltenberg’s sentences containing critique of the
encroachments that is not immediately followed by another containing
characteristics of Bosniaks or Muslims. Even when he is talking about
Srebrenica, he hurriedly «enlightens» the listener by emphasizing the
way in which the victims contributed to their own misfortune. Hence
aggressor is Serbian, this fact is never allowed to remain in focus.
to him, one should always remember that everyone
committed some cruelties no one was
innocent. Stoltenberg still remains uninfluenced by the evidence
the not particularly Bosniak-friendly CIA, among others) showing that
percent of the cruelties were committed by Bosnian Serbs led by
Karadzic and Mladic; the cognitive dissonance is simply too great, as
the prestige he attaches to defending of his own role. In his case
– even more
than with his colleagues
– a speech for which (unnoticed in
Finally, in claiming that the peace plans he recommended to the Bosniaks would have saved many human lives, including the victims of Srebrenica, and that the Dayton-agreement of December 1995 is not very different from (where territorial division is concerned) his and Owens’ rejected proposal, Stoltenberg overlooks the fact that his model is far from being legitimate according to morality and international law. To sum up, following Wilhelm Agrell and Jesus Alcala:
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