The ‘feel good response’ to mass atrocity: From Srebrenica to Homs

The Srebrenica massacre offers a prime example of the dangers of what can be called a “feel good response” to mass atrocity. By a “feel good response,” I mean action that is designed to look good in the eyes of international public opinion but fails to do anything really effective to protect a threatened population. ...

The Srebrenica massacre offers a prime example of the dangers of what can be called a "feel good response" to mass atrocity. By a "feel good response," I mean action that is designed to look good in the eyes of international public opinion but fails to do anything really effective to protect a threatened population. A feel good response can often wind up making a tragic situation even worse -- as was the case in Srebrenica, where around 7,000 Muslims became the victims of pre-meditated mass murder in July 1995.

Examples of such empty moralism abound -- from Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur to Syria.

The Srebrenica massacre offers a prime example of the dangers of what can be called a “feel good response” to mass atrocity. By a “feel good response,” I mean action that is designed to look good in the eyes of international public opinion but fails to do anything really effective to protect a threatened population. A feel good response can often wind up making a tragic situation even worse — as was the case in Srebrenica, where around 7,000 Muslims became the victims of pre-meditated mass murder in July 1995.

Examples of such empty moralism abound — from Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur to Syria.

To explain what I mean, let me review the history of the establishment of the so-called United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica as a result of Security Council resolution 819, adopted on April 16, 1993. The resolution represented the response of the United States and Security Council members to the public outrage engendered by a widely publicized visit to Srebrenica the previous month by General Philippe Morillon of France. The photograph above shows the charismatic U.N. general being besieged by a crowd of Muslim refugees as he tried to leave the town on March 12. Here is a YouTube clip:

As it happened, a freelance ABC News reporter, Tony Birtley was also in Srebrenica at the time of the Morillon visit. His dramatic footage of starving Muslims being shelled daily by surrounding Bosnian Serb forces had a similar impact on world public opinion to the recent news reports from the besieged Syrian city of Homs. Clearly, western governments had to do something in response to the suffering in Srebrenica — but what?

The solution reached by the United States, supported by Britain and other Security Council members, was a gigantic fudge. The Security Council demanded that “all parties and others concerned treat Srebrenica and its surroundings as a safe area,” but failed to put any teeth behind the resolution. In June 1993, the Security Council voted to send a lightly-armed peacekeeping force to the “safe areas” to “deter attacks against the safe areas” and “monitor” a ceasefire. But Resolution 836 did not make any mention of actually protecting or defending the refugees.

Western governments never resolved the fundamental contradiction in the mandate of the lightly-armed “peacekeepers” who were deployed to Srebrenica as a consequence of Resolution 836. As the “peacekeepers” later discovered, they had neither the mandate, nor the resources, nor the necessary political support from the Security Council to defend the “safe area.” The hypocrisy was finally exposed in July 1995, when Mladic’s forces took over the “safe area” with scarcely a shot being fired by Dutchbat.

A report by U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan in November 1999 reached the conclusion that the deployment of peacekeepers to Srebrenica was “at best, a half measure” and a poor substitute for “more decisive and forceful action to prevent the unfolding horror.” According to the report, the “many errors” made by the United Nations in Srebrenica all flowed from a single original error: “we tried to keep the peace and apply the rules of peacekeeping when there was no peace to keep.” In the end, the international community was unable to find “the political will to confront the menace defying it.”

All in all, a devastating indictment of “empty moralism.” I invite readers to come up with other examples of “feel good responses” to genocide or mass atrocity that end up making the situation worse.

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.