The Three Lessons of Srebrenica

July 11, 2005
Swanee Hunt

The Boston Globe
Today, 50,000 people are expected to crowd into the Bosnian village of Srebrenica, for a 10th anniversary that's no celebration. July 11 is a day of mourning for Bosnians as they commemorate the worst atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust. On that day, the Serb militia separated more than 7,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys from their families, brutally murdered them, and threw their bodies into mass graves. ''Never again," we had said. We were wrong. And we'll be wrong again unless we learn three key lessons.
First, the Srebrenica massacre demonstrates that genocidal aggression requires well-reasoned military intervention. Americans assured the Dutch that, if they would commit peacekeepers as a tripwire around the UN-designated ''safe haven," the United States would lead forces to come in with air support to stop a Serb onslaught. Instead, we let ourselves be held back by a ''dual key" arrangement, whereby NATO would not take action without the UN's affirmation.
Secretary General Kofi Annan has since called the UN refusal to accept military intervention an appalling failure. We stood by, wringing our hands, as thousands were brutally executed in a massacre that might have been prevented by decisive action. Instead, we now have gruesome testimony for war crimes trials — a dishonorable substitute.
After Srebrenica, when the United States finally led NATO going in with air power followed by troops, we did it mostly right. Local and international observers agree that demobilization and reintegration of Bosnian combatants has been a success, and no American soldiers were lost to hostile action. The tragedy is that we waited so long to call the Serbs' bluff and that our force commanders initially refused to pursue the war criminals. Meanwhile, half of all Bosnians had lost their homes. In a country the size of Maryland, more than 150,000 were killed — that's 50 World Trade Centers in three years.
Even with security guaranteed by foreign troops, it has taken years for the international community to help survivors return to the hardest-hit areas, given a destroyed economy and all-too-strong presence of indicted war criminals still on the loose. In short, we should have intervened sooner.
Second, many outsiders believe wrongly that ethnic hatred made the war inevitable. It's easy for the international community to use the notion of centuries-old ethnic or religious divisions as an excuse for inaction. But it was President Slobodan Milosevic's political power grab that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia. While there were enclaves of one group or another, in Bosnian cities up to 40 percent of marriages crossed ethnic lines.
Before the war, holy days were often celebrated with friends of other faiths, although without differences of language or skin tone, many long-time neighbors and friends didn't even know each other's heritage. This was not a religious war. Instead, greedy politicians whipped up the animosity and fear that fueled the war through a barrage of propaganda invoking 14th century grievances. But in the minds of most Bosnians, lasting peace was, and is, possible.
Third, we must expand our restricted approach to peace-building to include a broader range of stakeholders, including women. As US ambassador in Austria during the war, I hosted negotiations and organized conferences, trying to promote peace in Bosnia. Almost every Balkan or international policy-maker was a man, even though Yugoslavia had the highest proportion of women PhDs in Europe. Would women have made a difference, if they'd had a place at the table? Over the years I've met with women on all sides of the conflict. One, an engineer named Alenka Savic, represented hundreds of others I interviewed when she said: ''This was not our war."
During the conflict, most US military officials and diplomats were unaware that some 40 women's organizations were operating under the radar. Unsupported by outsiders, they were unable to prevent or stop the war, but they've been an invaluable resource during reconstruction.
I've worked with women from 40 conflict areas and found that they're consistently underutilized. Which is to say that their untapped potential is vast. For sustainable peace, military leaders and other policy-makers must integrate them into reconnaissance, negotiations, disarmament, and governance. Today, as we remember the men and boys who died in Srebrenica, let's also remember women who could be strategic partners to our efforts in Colombia, Afghanistan, or Liberia.
Srebrenica reminds us that understanding when and how to intervene in a conflict requires challenging stereotypes and assumptions. We must gather as much information from the field as we can muster, making use of all the resources available to us, including the women who could be valuable strategic partners.
With a new model of inclusive security, we honor the dead and show that we really mean it when we say ''Never again."

Swanee Hunt is director of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of ''This Was Not Our War: Bosnian Women Reclaiming the Peace," winner of the 2005 PEN/New England Award for nonfiction.


John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page