‘Colossal, collective failure’

A decade ago, a terrible tragedy was visited on the citizens of Srebrenica, a small town in Bosnia. At the height of the war over Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serb military forces systematically slaughtered all of the town’s Muslim men and boys. What is worse, this massacre occurred under the eye of the United Nations. There are few more shameful episodes in contemporary history. Yet the lesson of Srebrenica — “never again” — might not have been learned: Genocide is once again being visited upon innocents.

Nearly a quarter of a million people were killed in the 43-month conflagration that marked the end of Yugoslavia. In July 1995, near the end of the war, Serb military forces overran the mountain town of Srebrenica. The town had been declared a safe haven by the U.N., with some 400 Dutch peacekeepers deployed to protect its overwhelmingly Muslim population. The Serbs ignored the Dutch “blue helmets,” betting, rightly, that the U.N. would not authorize the air strikes that would have equalized the military equation.

Impotent, the Dutch soldiers watched helplessly while the Serbs segregated women from men and boys. They aimed to “cleanse” the territory of Muslims so that when peace was established, Serbs would not be challenged for control of the area. To do so, they killed more than 7,000 unarmed males and then discarded the bodies in anonymous pits.

The massacre was denied by Serb nationalists. They claimed the killings never occurred, or that the death count was exaggerated. When war crimes investigators uncovered the mass graves and began to identify the bodies, Serb claims shifted. Then, the nationalists took refuge in the claim that the slaughter was a natural consequence of war, that the killings were random, or that it was somehow justified by other atrocities visited against Serb citizens.

The curtain of denial was fatally penetrated earlier this year when a videotape was shown during the war crimes trial of former Serb President Slobodan Milosevic. The tape showed Muslims being systematically killed by Serb forces, shattering any claim that the Serbs were not involved or that the killings might have been random.

Thus far, about 2,000 victims have been identified and buried. There are another 7,000 body bags with remains that have yet to be identified and nearly two dozen mass graves have yet to be excavated. Ceremonies last week interred another 600 victims. International officials, such as former U.S. envoy to the Balkans Richard Holbrooke and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, concede that Srebrenica was a ghastly stain on the conscience of the international community. “Srebrenica was the failure of NATO, of the West, of peacekeeping and of the United Nations,” admitted Mr. Holbrooke. Mr. Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy representative, called it “a colossal, collective and shameful failure.”

It is difficult to understand what those words mean. Mr. Milosevic is in the dock in The Hague, being prosecuted for war crimes. Serbian President Boris Tadic attended the Srebrenica ceremonies and laid a wreath. Yet most Serbs ignored the commemorations and complained that Mr. Tadic should have honored Serb war dead instead. Mr. Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, the political and military heads, respectively, of the Bosnian Serb forces and the individuals most responsible for the atrocities committed during the war, remain at large. The guilty remain unpunished, and this feeds the call for vengeance. Yet vengeance is not justice, and the demand for retribution must be tempered.

Worse are the echoes of Srebrenica elsewhere in the world. In Darfur, a genocide is taking place as hundreds of thousands of innocent Sudanese are being killed with government connivance, and once again the international community wrings its hands and does nothing. The U.N. has acknowledged the savagery, but has failed to demand protection for the suffering people of the Sudan and shied away from penalizing those responsible. History repeats itself as another chorus cries “never again.”

It is easy to blame the U.N. for its failure: Most governments do. But the U.N. is only as powerful as its members want it to be. If it fails to act, it is because the members do not authorize such measures. And time and time again, world leaders have found persuasive reasons to do nothing.

Intervention risks lives, or threatens national sovereignty, or imperils other national interests. Just as Srebrenica preceded Darfur, the massacre in Srebrenica followed the slaughter in Rwanda. Shame and failure have not been sufficient to motivate the world to act. We must be ready for more horrific stains on our conscience.