Articles on the Kosovo Conflict



Milosevic Had Notice of "Slow Motion Genocide"
By Judith Armatta
February 13, 2004

International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY)
Milosevic Trial - The Hague - Court Room One
10 February 2004

THE HAGUE - Alleging misinformation, cover up and withholding information at the United Nations, Venezuela's permanent representative to the UN during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Diego Enrique Arria, told the Trial Chamber in the Milosevic case that the United Nations' failure to take decisive action against ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs produced a climate of impunity that permitted slow motion genocide against the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica from 1993 to its culmination in 1995. He testified that the "culture of impunity" started when the Deputy Prime Minister of Bosnia was assassinated in front of UNPROFOR troops and nothing was done. It was reinforced every time the UN received reports of ethnic cleansing and crimes against the Bosnian Muslims and failed to respond.

Dr. Arria told the Court a double standard operated for some UN members who approved UN intervention to protect Kuwait while doing nothing to protect Bosnia. They feared the presence of a Muslim nation in the heart of Europe, he said. When Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's UN Representative, wrote letters of complaint to the UN they were "almost totally disregarded." The UN operated under a "climate of denial" of what the whole world knew was taking place, Dr. Arria said.

In November 1991, the witness joined other members of the UN Security Council in voting for an arms embargo for all of Yugoslavia. At that time, according to the witness, information was more limited and didn't include the fact that the embargo would leave one of the parties with most of the arms and another with hardly any. "We thought this was a significant measure but we didn't know we were pre-ordaining the outcome of the conflict," Dr. Arria testified. "The only one that didn't have arms was Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Security Council didn't know. It didn't put all [the parties] in a similar position."

One document that didn't make its way to the Security Council members was a March 18, 1993 letter from Sadako Ogata, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who warned that "everything indicates a massive humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding" in Bosnia. Mrs. Ogato declared that key leaders should be informed. Dr. Arria told the Court that, though he was serving on the Security Council, he first saw the letter 11 years later. It was not shared with the Security Council.

Mrs. Ogata wrote a second, follow-up letter to Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. She described the situation in Srebrenica as disturbing and advised that the UN needed to immediately enhance its presence or provide other assistance in order to save lives. She again urged the Secretary General to involve key leaders in the matter. While this letter was passed on to the Security Council, it took the Secretary General 12 days to do it.

Member states of the "Non-Aligned Movement" (NAM), which former Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito helped to start, took up Bosnia's cause on the Security Council. When Bosnia filed a complaint asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to require the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) to take immediate action according to its obligations under the Genocide Convention to prevent the crime of genocide in Bosnia and to insure that forces directed or supported by, or subject to its control or influence not commit genocide or incitement to genocide, the Non-Aligned States struggled to have it recorded and acknowledged by the UN. They offered a draft resolution to condemn ethnic cleansing and confirm sanctions against the FRY. When no action was forthcoming, Dr. Arria followed up several days later with a letter stating the Non-Aligned States considered postponement of consideration of the draft resolution extremely serious, particularly since the Bosnian Serbs had been unwilling to heed any good will efforts towards peace. Though Dr. Arria and the Non-Aligned Nations continued their efforts, the draft resolution was never passed.

Geoffrey Nice, lead prosecutor, asked Dr. Arria if information on the UN's inaction over reported ethnic cleansing and potential genocide in Bosnia was available to the Accused. He said that it was. He knew, he explained, because the Yugoslav Ambassador used to send reports to Venezuela and "his reports were more fully informed than mine." This is evidence that Milosevic had notice that the Bosnian Serbs he was supporting were committing crimes that might include or lead to genocide. Continuing to provide massive military aid, as evidence has shown, with this knowledge could establish his complicity in genocide.

After being pressed, the UN sent a mission to Srebrenica, which Dr. Arria headed. However, not all UNPROFOR personnel welcomed the mission. Dr. Arria testified that Brigadier Vere Hayes, UNPROFOR Commander, "did not cooperate in any way to help us discharge our mission." On the contrary, he did everything possible to block it. On re-examination, the witness praised the majority of the men and women of UNPROFOR, who were placed in an impossible situation with inadequate resources, and expected to be neutral in relations between aggressors and their victims. It was this neutrality that Kofi Annan later criticized, calling it the UN's policy of "moral equivalency," i.e. treating victim and aggressor equally in an attempt to remain neutral.

When he finally arrived in Srebrenica, what Dr. Arria saw on the ground shocked and dismayed him. He testified that Serb paramilitaries wandered freely about the enclave together with UN personnel. It was clear Serb forces and not the UN were in charge, he said. The Bosnian Serb Army (VRS) had surrounded the enclave with heavy weapons, while its members walked around inside seemingly at will. (On re-examination, Geoffrey Nice asked the witness if any VRS soldier complained to him about being shot at by the Bosnian Government Army (BHA) from the enclave. None had.)

Bosnian Serb forces had prevented humanitarian aid convoys from entering, including those carrying desperately needed medical supplies. To make matters worse, the Serbs turned off water, electricity and gas. Tens of thousands of people -- residents and many more who had taken refuge there -- were living in inhumane conditions. At the time, Dr. Arria gave a statement to the press declaring that the Serbs were running a concentration camp policed by UNPROFOR. By cutting off all humanitarian aid, they were in open defiance of the international community, he said. It was then Dr. Arria coined the phrase "slow motion genocide." At the time, he didn't know the genocide would take two years for its final denouement. Media attention and a UN resolution may have slowed the process of genocide, but it did not stop it. The Bosnian Serbs, just like Milosevic, promised to abide by UN resolutions and agreements but never did. Dr. Arria testified that he met with Radovan Karadzic at the Belgrade airport, where he had just come from a meeting with Milosevic. Karadzic promised to restore water to the enclave immediately. He never did. The UN's failure to hold the Serb leaders accountable created a culture of impunity that led inexorably to the massacre at Srebrenica.

The UN mission's unanimous report of the disaster in Srebrenica finally led the UN to pass a resolution detailing the situation on the ground, including the fact that Srebrenica was under siege, surrounded by tanks and heavy weapons, the people were living in inhumane conditions, Bosnian Serbs had blocked humanitarian aid and medical supplies into the enclave, the potential for a massacre of 25,000 people existed, and slow motion genocide was occurring. The resolution was circulated to the General Assembly and quoted widely in the media. In other words, it also put Milosevic on notice.

Nevertheless, Bosnia and Srebrenica soon enough dropped off the UN's radar screen. Yet the NAM continued to press for a real solution of the situation in Bosnia. It produced a document declaring that Bosnia had become a symbol of resistance to the crime of genocide with 100,000 dead. Ominously, it warned that "no one can claim ignorance." Again the NAM drafted a resolution to lift the arms embargo so that Bosnia could defend itself, since it was obvious that the international community had declined to do so. Every state, the NAM noted, had a right to self defense under the UN Charter. Only the United States of the permanent Security Council members supported the draft resolution.

So serious did he consider the situation that, when Dr. Arria addressed the Security Council on the draft resolution, he likened Bosnia's position to that of Czechoslovakia in 1938. President Alija Izetbegovic was being called intransigent, just as President Edvard Benes had been. And Bosnia was being forced to cede 90% of its territory, just as Czechoslovakia had.

Despite claiming he remained ill after more than a week off, Milosevic did one of his better cross examinations. He first took the witness to task for having said information was withheld from him and other non-permanent members of the Security Council, while telling the Court he knew what was happening in Bosnia. Dr. Arria replied that there were many unofficial sources of information, including permanent members of the Security Council who would talk off record. He was, he said, in a privileged position. The problem was the lack of information from official channels which was necessary to provide the basis for action.

Milosevic challenged the witness over his criticism of Boutros-Ghali for covering up the facts and providing disinformation. In response, Dr. Arria threw back, "You're the only accused party here. I'm not accusing others." He went on to say that he was very critical of the then-Secretary General for his "arms length position," refusing to be present during private debates on Bosnia. Milosevic persisted, suggesting Dr. Arria was accusing Boutras-Ghali of a crime when he wrote that the Secretary General's filter on information prevented it from getting to the Security Council, affecting people's lives. While denying the accusation, the witness nevertheless charged that the Secretary General knew about the fall of Srebrenica one month before the Security Council. He added, "I doubt the Security Council would have done much more had it known."

The Accused turned to a statement of Dr. Arria's to the effect that international envoys Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen, together with Milosevic, were proposing a form of "apartheid" in what became known as the Vance-Owen Peace Plan (VOPP). It was not apartheid, Milosevic declared, because the proposed cantonization of Bosnia was not wholly along ethnic lines. That was precisely why the Bosnian Serbs, supported by Milosevic, wanted Srebrenica, Dr. Arria answered. With a Serbian Srebrenica, there would be a more complete ethnic division. Milosevic confronted the witness with another part of his statement where he claimed that Srebrenica was necessary for the Serbs and the UN to secure a peace deal. "In your opinion, Owen, Vance and the Security Council, with me, created the basis for a Greater Serbia. There is a lack of seriousness in that," Milosevic said dismissively. Dr. Arria disagreed. "The outcome reflects what was intended: ethnic partition."

Milosevic demanded whether the witness knew that the maps dividing Bosnia were the result of final negotiations at Dayton, based on a proposal by the Contact Group. What Dr. Arria knew, however, was that the "moment of Dayton" was a situation created by Serb atrocities. The Bosnians had no options and no one was going to do anything about it. "The people were ravaged, the country destroyed, subjected to genocide and crimes against humanity. Belgrade made it possible. There were no other options but for Bosnia-Herzegovina to sign. At the end, Bosnia-Herzegovina . . . was partitioned on ethnic considerations. I stand on that."

When Milosevic insisted that it was common knowledge all his efforts were geared toward achieving peace -- "and no one can dispute that," Dr. Arria informed the Court that "we were clear, a two-pronged approach was adopted by the Serbian side. One, Milosevic entertaining endless negotiations, and two, his proxies doing the dirty work . . . ." It led to the UN waiting years before putting an end to the conflict -- with over 200,000 people dead, the witness said. After Milosevic cited a media interview he gave in 1992 declaring that Serbia and he deplored ethnic cleansing, Dr. Arria responded, "I only wish Mr. Milosevic would have lived up to what he declared."

Amicus Steven Kay conducted his usual well-targeted cross examination. He suggested to the witness that problems in the Srebrenica Safe Haven were caused by a seven-fold increase in the population when refugees sought safety as surrounding villages were destroyed. The town's infrastructure was simply unable to cope. Dr. Arria told the Court that the town's infrastructure (devastated from the siege, the Bosnian Serbs' blocking of humanitarian aid and shutting off water, gas, and electricity) wasn't even sufficient to support 500 people. Its normal population was around 10,000.

The Serb forces, Mr. Kay suggested, were responding to attacks by Bosnian forces from within the enclave. When he was there with the UN mission, Dr. Arria informed the Court, the Bosnians were very lightly armed, while the Serbs -- with heavy weapons surrounding the safe haven -- were in absolute control of it.

On re-examination, the witness testified that the situation on the ground in Srebrenica when he visited in 1993 was worse than what the media had reported. It was "unimaginable," so bad that he told a Russian diplomatic colleague it was reminiscent of Leningrad on a smaller scale. When he saw it, he vowed not to be a bystander, he told the Court.

Dr. Arria clarified that his mission to Bosnia recommended a substantial change in policy regarding the safe havens. First and foremost, it was to make their objective the protection of civilians. This was not done, nor were the so-called Protection Forces increased by the UN. Two years later, when Srebrenica was attacked by Bosnian Serb forces, the UN's mandate was to protect its own personnel, not the civilians who looked to it for a "safe haven." Nor could it have, as under-resourced as UNPROFOR was.

Dr. Arria's testimony was important because it shows that Milosevic was aware of the unfolding tragedy in Srebrenica as early as 1993, that he was privy to warnings it could lead to genocide, as well as information that the situation at the time was inhumane, a situation caused by the Bosnian Serbs over whom he is alleged to have had influence or control.

While evidence about the UN's role in Srebrenica may not be directly relevant to the trial, Dr. Arria's testimony about it is a grave indictment of the international community as it operated through its world body, the UN. Dr. Arria tells of intentional misleading as well as indifference by the highest UN officials (and some member states) to the unfolding tragedy in Bosnia, what he called at the time "slow motion genocide." Despite lofty declarations of "never again" and the adoption of a Convention which obliged states to stop genocide, confronted with mass crimes directed at the Bosnian Muslims, the institution established to prevent a recurrence of mass killing intentionally looked away. As one of those who didn't, Dr. Arria deserves praise. More importantly, his accusations should be broadly aired -- not to bring down the institution created from desperate hopes to avoid the horrors of war and genocide, but to improve it so that one day it can fulfill the vision of its creators.

Submitted by Judith Armatta on 12 February, 2004 - Updated: 13 February 2004 10:59


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