Committee for Human Rights in Serbia
LETTER OF TWO FOUNDING MEMBERS
OF HELSINKI COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN SERBIA TO THE NEW YORK TIMES IN RESPONSE TO
STATEMENT BY DIRECTOR OF THAT COMMITTEE
Many of you have worked in countries where human
rights work is not only honorable and admirable, but also a very dangerous job. In
solidarity with those who continue to work in such circumstances, we would like to share
with you an unpublished letter to the editor of the New York Times regarding the statement
of Sonja Biserko, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, published
on May 9, 1999. Being human rights activists ourselves, we believe that our colleagues
should always bear in mind the security of people who work in dangerous circumstances, in
particular when the statement they are making falls out of the human rights mandate.
(co-founders of the Helsinki Committee for Human
Rights in Serbia)
To the Editor:
(Re Blaine Harden's What would take to cleanse
Serbia, New York Times, May 9, 1999)
Statement of Ms. Sonja Biserko that NATO should
occupy Serbia may well be her personal view, but she was presented in the New York Times
as the director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. We strongly believe
that it is not the job of a human rights activist to do a politician's or military
strategist's work. In normal times, this would be a matter of personal and professional
ethics. But in the time of war, Ms. Biserko's statement appears to be utterly
irresponsible. Being safe in New York City, by her reckless politicking she put at risk
people who still work for the Helsinki Committee in Belgrade, and indeed other human
rights activists in Serbia. Human rights activists in Yugoslavia are still trying to do
their job in a professional way in spite of circumstances. Unfortunately, there is plenty
of work: from the very nature of the NATO action that is at least disputable from the
international law standpoint, to the treatment of refugees, violations of the laws of war,
to treatment of dissenters and minorities. But it should never be forgotten how precarious
in itself is the situation of the human rights activists that work on the ground in
Yugoslavia. Their work is impeded by the censorship and general atmosphere of fear. Their
personal position has become increasingly insecure as they are viewed by some as
"traitors" or the "fifth column."
If you cannot help them, then please do not make
their work more difficult and dangerous.
Elena Popovic, New York, NY
Vladimir Djeric, Ann Arbor, MI
New York Times
May 9, 1999
What It Would Take to
By BLAINE HARDEN
It may feature: Fratricidal civil war in Montenegro.
Ethnic cleansing of Hungarians in the Serbian province of Vojvodina. Mass murder of
Muslims in the Sandzak region of Serbia. No need, for the moment, to bother about the
location or correct pronunciation of these obscure places. The world will likely learn.
Just as it learned where Kosovo is -- or was -- before more than 700,000 human beings were
chased from their homes in a systematic military campaign of burning and intimidation,
theft and murder.
If the pattern holds, Milosevic will soldier on,
using Big Lie manipulation of television to tap into a collective soft spot in the Serbian
psyche. Even as legions of non-Serbs are dispossessed or killed, he will continue to
inflame the Serbs and preserve his power by reassuring them that, yes, they are the
Given the character of Milosevic's regime and knowing
that there is almost certainly more horror to come, a bold, if impractical, question is
just now beginning to be formulated. Is it finally time for outside powers to make the
effort necessary to cure a national psychosis inside Serbia that has been destabilizing a
corner of Europe for a decade?
Put another way, has the time come for NATO to do in
Serbia what the Allies did in Germany and Japan after World II?
To follow that model, Serbia's military would have to
be destroyed, and Milosevic crushed, by an invasion that almost certainly would cost the
lives of hundreds of U.S. soldiers. After unconditional surrender, the political, social
and economic fabric of Serbia would be remade under outside supervision so that the Serbs
could take their place in a prosperous and democratic world.
The question cuts three ways. Will it happen? Should
it happen? Could it possibly work?
The answer to the first part of this question, at
least for the foreseeable future, is a resounding No Way. The other answers, however, are
provocative enough to make it worthwhile to suspend disbelief and indulge the fantasy of a
Let's start, though, with the real world.
Policy-makers and long-time students of the West's slow-motion intervention in Yugoslavia
during the 1990's see no possibility of Milosevic's military defeat or of Serbia's
An agreement last week between the West and Russia
outlined the kind of solution the outside powers would seek instead -- a withdrawal from
Kosovo of the Yugoslav army, police and paramilitary fighters, with an international
security force to replace them. Details of the deal are still being argued over, but one
thing was clear: If the outside powers can get him to sign on, Milosevic would remain in
power in his shrinking Yugoslavia. Thus, he would have the opportunity to
"cleanse" another day. The West's calculation seems to be that avoiding a land
war, keeping NATO together and cementing relations with Russia outweigh the long-term
costs of letting Milosevic off the hook.
That, then, is the real world.
Such a course does nothing, of course, to eradicate
extreme Serb nationalism.
The only way to stamp out the disease, protect
Serbia's minorities and bring lasting peace to the Balkans is a Japan- or Germany-style
occupation of Serbia, according to Daniel Serwer, who until two years ago was the director
of European intelligence and research for the State Department. Serwer concedes that
occupation has never been on the West's list of serious options, but he echoes many
experts on the Balkans when he argues that it should be.
"It is very hard to see how Serbia undergoes
this process all on its own," said Serwer, now a fellow at the U.S. Institute of
Peace, a research group in Washington. "This regime is deeply rooted. It is not like
some dictatorship that you take off its head and it will die. It is so corrupt and the
corruption is not superficial."
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a Harvard historian who wrote
"Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," published a
kind of manifesto last week that demands Serbia "be placed in receivership."
"Serbia's deeds are, in their essence, different
from those of Nazi Germany only in scale," Goldhagen wrote in The New Republic.
"Milosevic is not Hitler, but he is a genocidal killer who has caused the murders of
many tens of thousands of people."
It is worth remembering, though, that Milosevic is an
elected leader, having won three elections that were more or less fair. That, along with
the Serb leader's soaring popularity in the wake of NATO bombing, support an argument that
what ails Serbia goes far deeper than one man.
No one makes this argument more powerfully than Sonja
Biserko, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia and a former senior
advisor in the European department of the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry. Ms. Biserko, who fled
Belgrade a week after the NATO bombings began, said in New York last week that Serbia's
fundamental problem is not Milosevic, but a "moral devastation" that has
infected her nation.
"People in Serbia are undergoing a mass denial
of the barbarity of the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo," Ms. Biserko said. "This
denial is itself commensurate to the crime taking place before the eyes of the
Ms. Biserko, who met 10 days ago with Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright and urged her to consider occupation, believes that Serbia's
opposition politicians are incapable now of coming to grips with a culture of victimhood.
"Serbs have managed now with the NATO bombing to convince themselves they are victims
and as victims they cannot be responsible for what happened in Kosovo," she said.
A surreal sense of victimhood in Serbia is nothing
new. During the siege of Sarajevo, when Serb forces ringed that city with artillery and
routinely killed its civilians, Belgrade television reported that Bosnian Muslims were
laying siege to themselves. "The Serbs continue to defend their centuries-old hills
around Sarajevo," said Radio-Television Serbia.
To shatter this Looking Glass victimhood, Ms. Biserko
offers a prescription: Indictment of Milosevic by the War Crimes Tribunal. A military
defeat of Serbia and demilitarization of the country. Highly publicized trials that will
force Serbs to confront the savagery committed in their name. A Western takeover of the
mass media, with strict prohibitions against the dissemination of extreme Serb
nationalism. A Marshall Plan for the Balkans.
Asked why the West should be willing to undertake an
occupation that would risk many lives, cost billions and take years, Ms. Biserko shrugged:
"What other choice is there?"
"The Western world has lost its political
instinct," she said. "To bring substance to the ideals of human rights, at some
point you must be willing to commit troops."
But could the occupation of Serbia work? Could it
break the cycle of violence? Two prominent historians believe it could, if done properly.
"The key in Japan was unconditional
surrender," said John W. Dower, a professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology and author of "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War
II." "The Americans went in and they did everything. They had a major land
reform. They abolished the military, simply got rid of it. They drafted a new
constitution. This is what you can do when you have unconditional surrender."
Dower was struck by the eagerness with which a
defeated people welcomed reform. "In Japan, the average person was really sick of
war, and I think that would be the case in Yugoslavia," he said. "The Americans
cracked open a repressive military system and the people filled the space."
The occupation of Germany also suggests ways of
dealing with Yugoslavia, according to Thomas Alan Schwartz, a historian at Vanderbilt and
author of "America's Germany."
"When Germany was totally defeated, it provided
opportunity," he said. "You could be physically there, controlling the flow of
information and using war-crime trials to show the Germans that atrocities were done in
Without something similar in Serbia, Schwartz said,
"We can look forward to more trouble in Serbia.
"What reminds me of Germany is the comparison to
the end of World War I," he added. "Then, the Germans had this powerful sense of
being victims. There was a deep resentment that Hitler was able to exploit. It will be the
same in Serbia when NATO bombing stops."
The Japan and Germany analogies, of course, are
flawed. Those major-league powers ravaged parts of the world that America cared about.
Occupation was nothing less than emergency triage for the worst violence in history.
Milosevic, by comparison, is small potatoes. He leads
a minor-league country that periodically lays waste to poor, unpronounceable,
strategically irrelevant places. Pristina is not Paris.
There is, though, an inkling that the West has begun
to try for a solution. In Bosnia, 32,000 NATO-led troops and High Commissioner Carlos
Westendorp are even now doing the hard, slow, complex work of healing that country.
Westendorp has not attempted a Japan-style remake of
the Serb-populated half of Bosnia (just as nobody has tried to do that in neighboring
Croatia, with its own accomplishments in ethnic cleansing). The indicted war criminals
Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic have not been hunted down. Radical Serb parties have not
been banned. But tough action is being taken. Westendorp ordered radical Serb nationalists
out of state television. He has fired the nationalist zealot who was elected the Bosnian
Serbs' president. If Serbs violently object to what the peacekeepers do, NATO-led forces
shoot to kill.
In a recent interview in Sarajevo, Westendorp said
most Bosnian Serbs are cooperating because they are sick of war. It will take time, he
said, but the West has enough money and muscle in Bosnia to extinguish the will to war.
The one insoluble problem, he said, was the leader in Belgrade.
"If getting rid of Milosevic fails," he
said, "then everything fails."