It's Time the Left Apologised for Its Denial of the Srebrenica Massacre

Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic intended to "ethnically cleanse" Bosnia, the opening day of his war crimes trial at the Hague heard yesterday.

Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic intended to "ethnically cleanse" Bosnia, the opening day of his war crimes trial at the Hague heard yesterday.

There has been ample evidence for some time detailing the massacre of over 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica during the summer of 1995, as well as Mr Mladic's hand in it. There is, in fact, more evidence of this particular genocide than most other crimes against humanity that occurred during the 20th century. An international tribunal, established by the UN, has already convicted one Bosnian Serb general of aiding and abetting the massacre in Srebrenica; and it looks set to convict another.

And yet for some, whether a genocide has taken place or not seems to me to be almost entirely dependent on the political persuasion of those doing the killing. In this case, what seems to trump all other considerations is an otherworldly "anti-imperialism". As a consequence, telling truth often morphs into attributing blame for every event to one power in particular - the United States. If that isn't possible, then events themselves must be downplayed, skirted around, or even dismissed completely as propaganda.

One of the works released by a prominant "progressive" writer in the years following the genocide that attempted to play down Serb atrocities was Diana Johnstone's Fools' Crusade. In the years since it was published, the work has been thoroughly discredited by many. British historian and expert on the Bosnian war Marko Attila Hoare described the book as "little more than a polemic in defence of the Serb-nationalist record during the wars of the 1990s - and an ill-informed one at that." "In short, she is an armchair Balkan amateur-enthusiast, and her book is of the sort that could be written from any office in Western Europe with access to the internet," he said. It is worth revisiting, however, due to the reaction it elicited at the time from a number of prominent Left-wing figures. Many of these people have never been held to account for the extent to which they tried to pin the blame for the Srebrenica on everyone apart from the perpetrators.

Noam Chomsky, the celebrated American radical professor, together with a clutch of others including British author Tariq Ali, signed an open letter to the Swedish magazine Ordfront defending Johnstone's works after the magazine was hit with a flurry of complaints following their publication of an interview with Johnstone - an interview in which she downplayed the genocide in Bosnia. The letter, signed by Chomsky, read: "We regard Johnstone's Fools' Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition."

Again, the response of Professor Chomsky in this instance should be put in the context of the wider reaction of certain sections of the Left to Western intervention in general - no matter that intervention in this case happened altogether too late. The method of Chomsky and his acolytes seems to be: select an action taken by the West - whether in Kosovo, Rwanda, or Libya (or in this case, belatedly in Bosnia and Herzegovina) - invert the role of perpetrator and victim, and form a conclusion which lays the blame for every atrocity at the door of Western intervention or a Western ally in the region. If this means downplaying attrocities committed by those opposed to Western forces, then so be it.

Chomsky himself even went so far as to say of Johnstone's book that "She argues and, in fact, clearly demonstrates that a good deal of what has been charged [in Srebrenica] has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication."

Asked later whether he regretted supporting those who said that the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated, Chomsky said his only regret was that he "didn't do it strongly enough".

In this vein too was the response of the American academic and other long-time Chomsky associate Edward Herman. On Kosovo Herman, wrote John Feffer in Foreign Policy in Focus, "manages to construct an alternative universe in which Serbian military forces only acted in defence, Slobodan Milosevic was a benevolent Gorbachev figure, and the international legal community functioned as some kind of adjunct to NATO".

Chomsky was as reluctant to distance himself from Herman as he had previously been from Johnstone. Not only did he defend Herman's right to challenge genocide, but he consistently praised Herman's body of work.

To some observers, it may appear as if it is not Herman and Johnstone's right to free speech that Chomsky is defending, but rather their particular worldviews.

It is not only Chomsky's friends who implicate him, however. Chomsky himself, when referring to the Srebrenica massacre, continues to place the word genocide in quotes, despite the fact that, as mentioned earlier, an international tribunal has convicted a Bosnian Serb general of aiding and abetting genocide.

If anything, the reaction of a number of prominent Left-wing intellectuals to the Srebrenica genocide was a taster of things to come. On the back of 9/11, anti-Americanism began to trump any concern for the lives of other human beings in many so-called radical circles. The primary motivation became a deep hatred of the west for many of these people, rather than a sense of solidarity with the oppressed. The main thrust of this movement is an "anti-imperialism" espoused from the comfort of a warm bed with a full stomach in a liberal democracy.

Now that another of Slobodan Milosevic's murderous generals is in the dock, it seems a fitting time for the Left to admit it got it wrong on Srebrenica.


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