Bosnia in Light of the Holocaust: War Crimes Tribunals

Madeleine K. Albright, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations

Address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, April 12, 1994

It is both an honor and a challenge to be here with you tonight. This is not an easy building within which to speak. Inscribed on its walls are some of the most eloquent manifestations of language ever recorded. Embedded in its exhibitions are some of the most monstrous deeds ever perpetrated. Yet language must confront deed in this living museum, which educates beyond words and without compromise; educates deeply and troubles deeply. There is no more appropriate a place to discuss the War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

We all have a stake in the success of this tribunal. Tonight, I will discuss why that is true, but I will begin with the arguments of some who suggest it is not. There are those who dismiss the War Crimes Tribunal as a weak substitute for stronger international action; they see it as a means for expiating guilt for failure to do more earlier to stop the killing in Bosnia. Others ridicule the tribunal because it has no guaranteed means of gaining custody over the principal suspects, even those we consider most responsible for the atrocities that have occurred. Still others ask why the conflict in the former Yugoslavia merits special attention. War crimes have been and are being committed elsewhere; ethnic cleansing is perpetrated elsewhere; there are other wars with more victims, other wars of international aggression, other wars where outrages have been ordered from the top. Why punish crimes in the former Yugoslavia and leave the likes of Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein uncharged? Finally, some see the tribunal as an obstacle to peace, believing that the negotiators will never agree to peace unless amnesty for war crimes is included.

The U.S. Government does not believe that because some war crimes may go unpunished all must go unpunished. We do not believe that the difficulty of the tribunal's work should bar the attempt. We oppose amnesty for the architects of ethnic cleansing. We believe that establishing the truth about what happened in Bosnia is essential to--not an obstacle to--national reconciliation. And we know that the tribunal is no substitute for other actions to discourage further aggression and encourage peace.

Two weeks ago, I was in Sarajevo to dedicate the site of America's new embassy. I found there a new sense of hope mixed with firm determination. In central Bosnia, reconciliation between the government and the Bosnian Croat faction has ended the deadly siege of Mostar. The threat of intervention by Croatian troops has ended. In the embattled east, the airport in Tuzla is now open. It is becoming easier and safer to move around the country. We hope that planners will soon be able to concentrate less on humanitarian relief and more on laying the groundwork for national reconstruction.

However, the road ahead remains steep. Gains already made must be consolidated. Cease-fires must be expanded. Further aggression in Gorazde and elsewhere must end. Where possible, the displaced must be allowed to return home. The Bosnian Serbs must be persuaded to accept peace. And the principle that the Bosnian people fought for, suffered for, died for, and lived for must be preserved. Bosnia must remain a multi-ethnic state.

The work of the War Crimes Tribunal does not and should not depend on political events. It stands on its own. Its constituency is the civilized world; its hidden enemy is the complacency of our world. But complacency is not something one is born with. It is not an internal organ; it is a choice. And there is no more appropriate place than here to sound a clarion call against indifference and toward the harder choice of dedication to the rule of law.

The War Crimes Tribunal For the Former Yugoslavia

The War Crimes Tribunal was formally established by the Security Council last May. Its jurisdiction includes several categories of serious violations of international humanitarian law that I have subsumed under the heading of "war crimes" for convenience tonight. These include grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Convention; genocide; and crimes against humanity, as recognized in conventional and customary international law and in the Charter and Judgment of the Nuremberg Tribunal.

The tribunal's 11 judges, including Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald of Texas, were elected last fall and are preparing actively. Rules of evidence and procedure are now in place. The UN has approved $11 million in budget authority for 1994. We believe that this amount, along with the voluntary contributions received, will be fully adequate to get the tribunal off the ground.

The search for a chief prosecutor has been long and frustrating. The UN Security Council's first choice waited three months before formally declining to accept the position. The search for a successor has dragged on too long, but we expect an announcement very soon. I can assure this audience that the United States did everything it could to see that this critical position would be filled. Fortunately, the acting deputy prosecutor--in whom we have great confidence--is hard at work.

The job of compiling the facts upon which investigations and prosecutions must be based is well advanced. Thou- sands of pages of documentation and testimony are on file. Statements and reports have been received from victims, witnesses, governments, UN agencies, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and from the European Community's investigation into crimes against Muslim women. I particularly want to salute the efforts of the non- governmental organizations, which have performed invaluable work in the cause of justice.

The United States is fully engaged. We are working to see that the tribunal is adequately funded: We are making a special voluntary contribution of $3 million; Congress has authorized the President to provide up to $25 million in goods and services to the tribunal, and, last month, the President approved the first drawdown-- about $6 million--from that authority. We also have assembled a group of about 25 prosecutors, investigators, area specialists, and others to work directly with the tribunal, beginning in the next few weeks. We are constantly collecting and analyzing information pertaining to war crimes, and we have provided hundreds of refugee interview reports to the tribunal and are preparing to provide hundreds more.

These reports were gathered through the diligent efforts of U.S. Government employees in several parts of the world. Most are eyewitness accounts of atrocities or ethnic cleansing. As we speak, a member of my staff is part of a team--operating under the auspices of the tribunal prosecutor's office--that is interviewing the victims of some of the worst violence of the war.

Finally, we repeatedly have asked other governments to join us in supporting the tribunal financially, politically, and legally. Governments must be willing to share information, interview witnesses, comply with tribunal requests, and take custody of suspects found within their jurisdictions. In this regard, I note that Germany has arrested a person suspected of ordering horrible atrocities at a concentration camp in Bosnia. Denmark also has a suspect under arrest.

The United States will continue to take into account good faith cooperation with the War Crimes Tribunal by Serbia- Montenegro and the Bosnian and Croat Serbs in determining how to sequence any easing or lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the Security Council on Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.

We should have no illusions about the obstacles that the tribunal will face. This is not Nuremberg; the accused will not be the surrendered leaders of a broken power. It will be very difficult to gain access to evidence, including mass grave sites, especially in areas under local Serb control. It will be difficult to gain custody over many of the accused.

But realism about the tribunal's prospects must not engender cynicism about its importance. Although there will be no trials in absentia, there will be investigations and findings of fact. The tribunal is empowered to deliver indictments and issue arrest warrants. Governments will be obliged to hand over for trial those indicted who are within their jurisdiction. The tribunal is empowered to request the UN Security Council to take enforcement action against any government that fails to do so. And indicted individuals will face the choice of standing trial or becoming international pariahs--trapped within the borders of their own land, subject to immediate arrest if they leave.

One advantage we have now is Nuremberg itself. Many of the legal arguments put forward by defendants at Nuremberg were disposed of in the judgment there. Today, there should be no question that political and military leaders may be held criminally accountable if they do not stop atrocities by their followers or do not punish those responsible. A person who gives the order to commit a war crime is culpable, as is the person who actually commits it. Conversely, a person acting pursuant to orders remains responsible, provided a moral choice was, in fact, available. Neither "just following orders" nor "just giving orders" is a tenable defense.

Let me now review the reasons why the U.S. Government believes the War Crimes Tribunal is so important.

What Is At Stake

First, the magnitude of the war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia demands an international legal response. The war itself is the result of premeditated, armed aggression. Bosnian Serb leaders have sought a "final solution" of extermination or expulsion to the problem of non-Serb populations under their control. The means chosen include murder, torture, indiscriminate bombing, fire, dismemberment, rape, and castration. Half of Bosnia's population has been displaced. Five percent have been killed. Abuses have been massive, repeated, deliberate, and gross. And no side is without guilt.

Earlier this year, I visited the mass grave near Vukovar. What I saw there was a garbage dump--a field of rusted refrigerators and scraps of farm equipment--beneath which 200 to 300 human beings are buried. There are no flowers, no signs or markers, no excavation of the soil. Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil. There is a sickening evil in the banality there.

I thought, during that same visit, of the pictures I had seen of the streams of refugees expelled from their homes in and around Vukovar. The images were eerily familiar. They could have come right out of the pictures in this museum of families fleeing Warsaw or Minsk or Bucharest or Prague. The faces were not the same, but the expressions and the movements were--the slow, stumbling, bewildered pace of uprooted families, burdened by their only remaining possessions, trudging down an unfamiliar road toward an uncertain future, the strong helping the weak until their own strength drained.

Most of the victims of the war in Bosnia--like the victims memorialized in this building--are not soldiers. They include average citizens of every description and of various nationalities--children, grandparents, doctors, nurses, mental patients, and church officials. The majority were killed not because they wandered into crossfire or were too close to a military target; these dead were not--in the terminology of the soldier-- collateral damage. They were men and women like you and me--boys and girls like those we know--intentionally targeted not because of what they had done but for who they were.

The racism at the center of Nazi ideology has not been present in the conflict in Bosnia. This is not the Holocaust, but there have been crimes of genocide. In 1939, when Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel ordered the purge of Poland, he called it "political housecleaning." Today, it's called ethnic cleansing. But the questions raised are similar.

-- How do we respond when the authority and resources of a state are directed toward the destruction of whole categories of human beings?
-- How is it possible for so many people--capable of generosity and warmth in other contexts--to descend to the level of beasts?
-- How can civilization not respond to crimes of this magnitude and still call itself "civilized?"
-- And how can we calibrate our response so that it leads in the direction not of revenge but of justice?

This brings me to a second argument in support of the War Crimes Tribunal: Even the threat of punishment for war crimes can save lives. The prospect of war crimes trials in the latter stages of World War II caused some Nazi leaders to modify their treatment of Jews and other prisoners. In the former Yugoslavia, each time the prospect of punishing war criminals has been publicized, the treatment of detainees has improved, and atrocities have diminished. Today, there are signs that some of the worst violators of human rights are being deprived of their authority by one-time protectors who now fear justice under the law.

In short, the more serious we are about the tribunal, the greater the potential deterrent the tribunal will be. If this means that one village that would otherwise be attacked is spared, that one woman who would otherwise be violated is respected, that one prisoner who would otherwise be executed is allowed to live--the existence of the tribunal would be validated on these grounds alone.

Third, the tribunal will make it easier for the Bosnian people to reach a genuine peace. The scars left on the bodies and in the minds of the survivors of this war will take time to heal. In too many places, neighbors were betrayed by neighbor and friend divided from friend by fierce and hostile passion. Too many families have assembled at too many cemeteries for us to say that ethnic differences in Bosnia do not matter. But responsibility for these crimes does not rest with the Serbs or Croats or Muslims as peoples; it rests with the people who ordered and committed the crimes. The wounds opened by this war will heal much faster if collective guilt for atrocities is expunged and individual responsibility is assigned.

Fourth, the tribunal can provide a deterrent to other potential aggressors. Adolf Hitler once dismissed arguments against killing Jews with the rhetorical question, "Who, after all, remembers the Armenians?" If the architects of war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia go unpunished, the lesson for would-be Milosevics around the globe will endanger us all, for today's world is a tinderbox of open and potential nationalist conflict.

National pride can be the custodian of rich cultural legacies. It can unite people in defense of a common good; it can provide a sense of identity and belonging that stretches across territory and time. But when pride in "us" curdles into hatred of "them," the result is a narrowing of vision and a compulsion to violence. As we saw in Germany a half-century ago, as we have seen in America with the Ku Klux Klan, and as we see in Serbia today, at the far fringe of ethnic pride is fascism.

There are thousands of self-defined ethnic groups in the world--more than 100 in the former Soviet Union alone. Not every one can reasonably expect to have its own flag, currency, airline, and state.

Today, violent separatist movements are gaining strength. Left unchecked, they may engulf in conflict whole chunks of Europe, Asia, and Africa. History from Sarajevo to Sarajevo warns us that when small powers fight, big powers are often drawn in. We have a stake in seeing that the embers of ethnic conflict are cooled and that models for easing fear, reconciling ambition, and clarifying principle are established.

That is why we will continue to stress our view that individuals are entitled to basic human rights irrespective of group identity. It is why we will continue to support the work of the CSCE and others to enhance respect for the rights of minorities. It is why we will continue to work through the UN and regional organizations to settle disputes peacefully. It is why we should be determined to salvage from the conflict in Bosnia, if we can, two lessons: first, that aggressors and outlaws will be called to account; and, second, that the problem of minorities cannot be resolved through ethnic cleansing. And it is why we will continue to view with deadly seriousness the rise of ultra-nationalist groups in strategic parts of the globe.

Let us never forget that the extreme views of Adolf Hitler caused many to ridicule him when they should have opposed him. Today, we may want to agree with the Russian Foreign Minister that Vladimir Zhirinovskiy is less a political problem than a medical one. But it is disquieting to see bonds build between radical nationalists in Russia and in the former Yugoslavia. And history teaches us that individuals can be deranged and dangerous at the same time.

Finally, the War Crimes Tribunal can strengthen the fabric of international law. What we have witnessed in the former Yugoslavia goes beyond war to the brutalization of law and civilization itself. We Americans, living in a free society, have a deep interest in a world where acceptable "rules of the game" are observed. Today, the most severe threats we face come from regimes that have chosen to operate outside the law. We are determined that a price be exacted for such behavior, whether in the form of diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, military containment, or coercion. The War Crimes Tribunal complements this approach.

For example, it gives life to the principle that the laws of war should be applied irrespective of battlefield success. It reinforces the status of rape during armed conflict as a violation of international humanitarian law. It recognizes that interference with the delivery of humanitarian aid is a war crime, something which has broad implications for future UN missions. And it clarifies that there is a corollary to the right to emigrate--what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Dr. Sadako Ogata, has called "the right to remain"--a right directly opposed to ethnic cleansing.

These are key principles. Made concrete, they would shield the citizens of not just one ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia but of all. And they would provide an extra margin of security to us all.

Clearly, the War Crimes Tribunal will not revolutionize human behavior. It will not stop all aggression. It will not end war crimes. It will not--even in the best case--ensure more than a measure of justice in the former Yugoslavia. But it will at least place the force and prestige of international law squarely on the side of the victims of this conflict. It will enhance the prospects for a durable peace. It will add a measure of caution to the scales in the minds of would-be aggressors. It will strengthen perceptibly the foundations of civilized society in a perilously unstable world. And it will rebut the song The New York Times reports is now popular in Belgrade: "Daddy is a War Criminal, But No One Dares Take Him to Court."


Tonight--with both the war and the War Crimes Tribunal in mind--here in this museum dedicated to memory, let us vow not to allow the future to be defined by the past. There are those who say we are all the prisoners of history and that the violence that has wracked the former Yugoslavia was but the inevitable aftershock of grievances incurred decades--even centuries--before. There are those who feel unaffected by crimes perpetrated against the people of Bosnia because the victims are so far away and because other problems--and other crimes--demand our attention here at home. There are those who view the human tragedy and legal outrage in Bosnia against a broad geopolitical canvas and say it would be "unrealistic" for us to care very much or for very long. There are those so appalled by the savagery of this and other wars that they despair of human progress and refuse to recognize that some measure of justice is preferable to no justice at all.

There is much within our experience to support each of these attitudes. There is much within this building to cause pessimism and despair. We cannot escape the damnable duality of human nature. We cannot base our lives or our policies on illusions about human character. But we can understand that there will be limits on what we can accomplish without ourselves limiting what we attempt. We can accept the reality of cruelty without accepting cruelty. We can think of Auschwitz and despair--or we can contemplate Auschwitz and vow never to allow despair to excuse inaction.

We are the same species as Adolf Hitler but also Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, and the rebels in the ghetto in Warsaw. We are the same species as the stranglers of Sarajevo--and of its defenders; the same as the killers of Bosnia--and the same as the many, including many Bosnian Serbs, who have risked their lives to save others.

We are the inheritors of a nation that did too little, too late to stop the Holocaust--and that liberated Buchenwald. We are a nation that has been hesitant to get involved directly in Bosnia--and that has done more than any other nation to inspire hope.

We do not come to this museum for facile understanding. We do not come here for reassurance. We come here to learn not answers but questions. The War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is a test of whether we are asking the right questions. By supporting it and fighting for it, we can do our part not to be imprisoned by history but to shape it: to build a world not without conflict but in which conflict is effectively contained; a world not without repression but in which the sway of freedom is enlarged; a world not without lawless behavior but in which the interests of the law-abiding are progressively more secure.

This museum demands what life demands--that we choose either to stand aside as long as we can or to do as much as we can. Let us, in the name of the long and newly dead--and of the living and of those to come--do all we can to stop genocide and serve life. Thank you very much.