Responsibilities towards refugees fleeing atrocities: A failure to learn lessons from Srebrenica?

Responsibilities towards refugees fleeing atrocities: A failure to learn lessons from Srebrenica?

Here, our Editor Kate Ferguson asks why 22 years after the Srebrenica genocide, do we still fail protect refugees from atrocities?


The massacre at Srebrenica twenty-two years ago was first and foremost a crime against Bosnia’s Muslim community. It was also a crime against refugees. As Europe this week commemorates the deliberate murder of more than 8,700 men and boys between the 11th and 13th July 1995, there are important lessons that European leaders would do well to reflect upon regarding responsibilities towards populations intentionally displaced by violence.

We know, in part because of what happened in Srebrenica –but also Sarajevo, Zvornik, and many other towns in Bosnia– that populations trapped or besieged by armed forces are at great risk. These risks have been seen more recently across Syria in Aleppo, Homs, Houla.

In 2005, in the wake of collective failure to prevent the deliberate targeting of civilians in both Bosnia and in Rwanda –and in the midst of the Save Darfur anti Genocide movement– the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) populations from atrocity crimes; genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes. A not insignificant achievement of R2P has been to successfully pose a moral challenge to state sovereignty in situations where sovereign powers are unwilling or unable to protect their citizens at risk from mass atrocities. Converting this rhetorical commitment and moral momentum into tangible and effective action has, at best, been patchy. The question of if and how this responsibility extends towards refugees fleeing these crimes is, as it always has been, severely contested.

During the crisis in Bosnia, meeting the ‘humanitarian needs’ of the populations at risk of atrocities was regarded as a challenge distinct from efforts to end the conflict. This approach stemmed from the failure to address the true objectives and ideology driving the violence: The forced displacement of Bosnia’s Muslims or, as it was euphemistically termed by Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadžić, ethnic cleansing, was not acknowledged as the war’s purpose until it was too late.   

In failing to recognise or respond to the fact that it was the Bosnian Muslim (or Bosniak) population that was at risk, rather than the military formations operating under the fleur de lis, the international community and United Nations played in to the hands of the elite structures perpetrating the atrocities throughout the crisis. By summer 1995, after more than three years of violence and war, the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS) had succeeded in removing Croat and Muslim populations from much of what is today Republic Srpska. The enclave of Srebrenica, a strategically important corridor connecting Bosnian Serb held territories in eastern Bosnia to Serbia proper was a natural target for the VRS –all the more so since internationally brokered peace plans marked Srebrenica as a province that would be included in the Bosnian Muslim lands. Since the massacre and forced deportation of its non-Serb refugees, Srebrenica province has been Bosnian Serb territory. The ethnic cleansing campaign, in this regard, was successful.

Ultimate responsibility for the slaughter –which was judged to be genocide by the International Criminal Court for former Yugoslavia– lies with the Bosnian Serb military and political elite, many of whom have already been prosecuted. Karadžić was found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica  in 2016 and the trial of General Mladić is on going. But the very visible UN presence in Srebrenica (much of it caught on on film) raised and continues to raise questions around the extent to which vulnerable populations, displaced and besieged, can rely upon the international structures, created in the wake of the Second World War, for protection.

Despite important advancements made since 1995 in peacekeeping, atrocity prevention, and civilian protection, the international community still falls short of these post-1945 rhetorical commitments and normative obligations. Mass atrocity violence together with climate change pose perhaps the greatest challenges to human security and global stability; both are the highest producers of refugees, displaced people, and migrants. Moreover, as the world’s resources become more finite, atrocity violence, climate change and mass displacement will only become more interconnected. If the international community is the effectively meet these challenges, a far more holistic strategy is needed. 

And the need is an urgent one: Today 97 percent of uniformed United Nation troops operate under a civilian protection mandate. Options to protect these populations are highly complex. As Srebrenica will always remind us, to set up a safe zone for the displaced is irresponsible without the will and capacity to actively protect the integrity of the designated safe area and safeguard those who seek to reach it. Military intervention may sometimes successfully protect vulnerable populations but will always be contested, and therefore too often driven by political rather than humanitarian will. While the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians, a set of non-binding commitments to best practice, seek to learn lessons from Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and South Sudan, efforts to integrate an ‘atrocity prevention lens’ into peacekeeping and conflict resolution strategies are still very much in their infancy. Providing safe passage for those fleeing atrocities should be the easy option. 

Alex Bellamy, godfather of the R2P-school, argues that the Responsibility to Protect ‘entails a responsibility to provide safe flight and asylum to those fleeing atrocity crimes.’ But this is an opinion not (yet) widely shared –in part a consequence of hostility to or misconceptions of R2P itself, and straightforward political resistance to increasing refugee intakes. Thus ‘some of those states that are the loudest advocates of R2P have been among the most reticent to extend protection to individuals fleeing atrocity crimes.’

R2P scholar Jennifer Welsh advocated during her tenure as UN Special Advisor on R2P for the norm to be better integrated into domestic decision-making as well as the international. While increased calls for R2P to “begin at home” are rooted in its first pillar (every state has the responsibility to protect populations within its own borders from atrocities), the shift in emphasis speaks more to a broadening of the concept of shared responsibilities to protect beyond the rigidity of the 2005 R2P framework. As commitment to atrocity prevention builds–and this is an agenda still only in its infancy–responsibilities towards people fleeing atrocities will need to be better integrated into the conversation. (And it is at these intersections where research and evidence can and must play a substantial role.) 

Extending “R2P” responsibilities to people fleeing R2P crimes potentially poses difficult legal and conceptual questions regarding asylum and humanitarian assistance policies. According to the Refugee Convention there is no hierarchy to refugee rights. And nor should there be. If you qualify as a refugee, those rights are, theoretically at least, inalienable.

States may not have greater legal responsibility to give sanctuary to refugees fleeing mass atrocities but perhaps as normative commitments to civilian protection and R2P increase, this will lead to more effective refugee provisions. Welsh’s call for greater consistency in R2P application highlights the divergence, perhaps even hypocrisy, that exists between foreign and domestic policies of western democracies; claims that the UK is a global leader in the protection of civilians abroad are undermined by its domestic politics of exclusion and resistance to newcomers. Prime Minister May pledged £1 billion of UK humanitarian aid to assist Syria’s displaced and host countries in the middle east, yet as Home Secretary quietly ended its contributions to European rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, which can save the lives of 1000 migrants and refugees–many fleeing atrocity crimes– in a single day.

Questions regarding a state’s responsibility to protect the lives of citizens that are not their own are the moral and political challenges of our time. Rhetorical commitment toward and public compassion for victims of mass atrocities has increased considerably in the last 60 years. That alone is worth acknowledging. R2P was established ten years after the massacre at Srebrenica. If public and political engagement with the concept of a shared responsibility to protect people from atrocities continues to grow, there may be an opportunity to develop more effective assistance to people fleeing those crimes but until the root causes of atrocities are addressed, mass displacement will continue.


Photo Source: By Michael Bueker (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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