Here is a false dilemma: what do you do when you realize that you have invited a genocide survivor who wants to change the rules of accountability for genocide to a forum of officials who might be implicated by the survivor’s strategy?

The real dilemma belongs to the survivors themselves: what do you do when you realize none of the lessons learned from your suffering apply to you?

Our discussion of dilemmas begins with a conference being held in The Hague this coming weekend that is sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and the Hague Institute for Global Justice. Their goal is to explore international decision-making around the 1995 fall of Srebrenica to the Bosnian Serb Army (BSA). In the days following their take-over of the town, the BSA murdered 8,372[i] Bosnian Muslims, mostly men, but including women and children. There was considerable scrutiny of these events even at the time of their occurrence: there was a Dutch battalion of the UN peacekeeping force in Srebrenica, the conflict was carefully monitored by American, European and UN officials, and the media and humanitarian organizations also conducted independent monitoring. The conference this weekend is designed to analyze international decision-making by bringing newly de-classified information together with leading international officials engaged at the time, with several representatives from Bosnia, including Hasan Nuhanović.

Hasan Nuhanović was a translator for the UN forces in Srebrenica, and unsuccessfully begged his Dutchbat colleagues to protect his father, mother and brother, all of whom were taken into custody by the BSA in front of the Dutch and later murdered. Nuhanović is a well-known internationally for his commitment over the past twenty years to unearthing the truth about Srebrenica. He has authored a book and brought a civil case against the Dutch in the Dutch legal system. In 2013, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that both the UN and Dutch state were responsible for what happened.

The organizers knew full well that Nuhanović was among the most vocal and successful of Srebrenica activists in holding international actors to account, but invited him anyway. Then they got cold feet. Their question was: should they risk having a guest who, as a person interested in accountability, could disrupt or inhibit the discussions? Or should they risk the consequences of rescinding an invitation to the Srebrenica survivor with, arguably, the highest public profile?

They rescinded his invitation this week, before the conference began. They argued that, as Cameron Hudson, director of USHMM’s programs on contemporary genocide stated “… in order to find out what happened in Srebrenica, people must be able to speak freely. That would be difficult in the presence of someone who brought legal action in the past and may do so again in the future.

I worked at the Museum on issues related to contemporary genocide for ten years, have deep respect for my former colleagues, and know that the institution is dedicated to fulfilling its mandate on contemporary genocide. I have also had the privilege of working with Hasan, who was once described as “angriest man on earth,” and whose anger has tempered over time into a searing commitment to expose the truth of Srebrenica and provoke consequences for genocide. No one, except those who have something to hide, should hope or expect that Hasan would work for anything less than this.

There is one obvious question: why, knowing Hasan and the types of international actors that this meeting privileges, would the invitation have been issued in the first place? There are less provocative Bosnian actors who could have been invited, and, as it turns out, were. This somewhat predictable problem is worrisome, however, because it suggests a lack of precisely the kind of understanding of the case of Bosnia that would be required to extract any meaningful lessons for the genocide prevention or response. However, I have termed it a false dilemma, because it exposes a more serious problem than whether one man will participate in one conference.

The real dilemma concerns what must be excised from international genocide and mass atrocities agendas in order to produce the kind of lessons learned that are palatable to powerful international actors. When truth telling aligns with the interests of power, it invariably softens its demands. If you bring together people from key international decision-making institutions to discuss a historical event that can only be deemed a colossal failure, the lessons will inevitably be focused on how the different actors did not coordinate their efforts behind a single, guiding ethos or policy. This is invariably true and it evenly distributes blame. It is also invariably true of many international failures, mistakes and faux-pas: it may even describe the “international community” rather than a problem within it.

Deliberately excluded from this approach–which cannot be limited to the USHMM’s approach but is indicative of many other such efforts–are two additional problems that Hasan Nuhanović’s presence would have exposed. First, the knowledge produced from these kinds of internal discussions is abstracted and exempted from consequences. International actors–and certainly the US, which has developed a severe allergy to holding proponents of failed international policies responsible for anything—have no interest in discussions that impose consequences. Second, the interests of international and Bosnian actors diverge when it comes to learning lessons. The international community is interested in lessons that apply elsewhere; Bosnians are concerned with applying those insights to their own circumstances.

In this, Bosnians are not unlike other “local” actors. Their suffering and the dysfunctional political dispensation they were left with following intensive international engagement leaves plenty of space for still applying a few lessons. There is no international will to do so and there won’t be in the foreseeable future. Hence, perhaps the most important lesson is that there are no other actors beyond themselves whose interest is Bosnia.

Perhaps it is time that someone—maybe the Bosnians?—develop a set of lessons learned for those who have suffered genocide as the parallel compendium to the lessons learned for those who view themselves as protectors in some future incident. In any case, Hasan may now have time to work on this, and perhaps his Bosnian colleagues who are still invited, Zlatko Lagumdzija, Hasan Muratović, and Muhamed Duraković, may decide to join him?

 

NOTES:

[i] The precise number of people killed in Srebrenica remain contentious; the number 8,372 killed was produced by the Federal Commission for Missing Persons in Bosnia on December 21, 2008. It combined several lists of the missing and known dead, with the results of exhumations of mass graves and DNA identification of remains. See Srebrenica Genocide Blog, http://srebrenica- genocide.blogspot.com/2008/12/update-8372-victims-of-srebrenica.html.

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