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Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia

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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

 

Dear Colleagues,

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 In solidarity with those who continue to work in such circumstances, we would like to share with you an unpublished letter to the editor of the New York Times regarding the statement of Sonja Biserko, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, published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.

Sincerely,

Elena Popovic
Vladimir Djeric

(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 Cleanse Serbia

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 victims.

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 post-Milosevic Balkans.

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 occupation.

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 world."

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 their name."

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."

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