The Ghosts of Srebrenica: Protecting Civilians in Armed Conflict


Two decades have elapsed since Gen. Ratko Mladic’s units of the Army of Republika Srpska killed over 8,000 Bosniaks near Srebrenica during the Bosnian war. Srebrenica was within the borders of a UN-declared “safe haven,” its non-combatant civilians ostensibly protected by a UN contingent that failed to confront the Serbian troops. On July 11, 1995, after separating men and boys from women and girls, the Serb units went on a killing spree, murdering nearly enough Muslim males to fill Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. Twenty years later, the memory of Srebrenica looms over the issue of protection of civilians from armed conflict.

The well-documented and publicized Srebrenica massacre has been described by the international community as genocide, and by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as “the worst [crime] on European soil since the Second World War.” Mladic, of course, is on trial in The Hague before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a UN-mandated ad hoc international court organized to try suspected war criminals from the Bosnian conflict, even as Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic signals an absence of Serbian regret for the massacre. The ICTY’s deliberate march toward justice, qualified successes in the political, social, economic, and defense reform of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the relative peace within the state’s borders since the war show the international community’s commitment to intervention, peacekeeping, and conflict prevention.

Protection of civilians in armed conflict means many things to different people. The most narrow, military-focused definitions and concepts encompass only the international law obligation for military forces prosecuting armed conflict to distinguish in targeting between legitimate military targets and protected non-combatants, and to take reasonable steps to mitigate civilian casualties of war. Counterinsurgency doctrine widens the scope of ambition to protection of the population, beyond the requirements of international law. Even more expansive definitions include a call to conduct military operations in a way that completely eliminates risks to civilians. This would include an affirmative obligation of military forces not only to avoid harming civilian non-combatants, but to protect them actively from the ravages of war — not merely incident to military operations, but as a primary objective. This laudable yet problematic policy goal takes one form as the controversial doctrine of Responsibility to Protect. The most achievable, realistic policy goal for the United States, her allies, and the international community likely lies somewhere in the middle, between basic, bare legal obligation and near-perfect standards for protection of civilians from all consequences of armed conflict.

Whether the duty is self-imposed, is derived from national concepts of morality and responsibility, or is externally mandated by developing norms of international law, Srebrenica serves as 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 progeny, the International Criminal Court — a standing international criminal tribunal — provide some deterrence and retributive justice, but they always act after the harm has occurred to civilians. The international community must do more prospectively in planning, training, and organizing social organizations, national armed forces, and political institutions and alliances to meet the challenge of better protection of civilians in conflict.

The global community of nations may not be able to be all things to all people, or reduce civilian casualties of war to zero, yet that should exactly be the goal — perhaps never achieved, but certainly always attempted. The Bosnian massacre reminds us of the costs of doing too little, or doing nothing at all, when faced with opportunities to protect civilian non-combatants from deliberate slaughter or unintentional harm. We may never realize perfection, but we should also never tolerate another Srebrenica.


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


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