The Fallacy of Neutral Humanitarianism in Bosnia

Human Rights Dialogue, Series 2, Number 5

January 6, 2001

As a member of Workers Aid for Bosnia, a humanitarian aid organization, I helped organize and drive convoys of supplies to Bosnia during the war. An organization founded in London in 1993 primarily by trade unionists and Bosnian refugees, Workers Aid was criticized by other humanitarian organizations for combining a campaign to collect and deliver food with political support for one side in the war—the side of a united, multi-ethnic Bosnia. The more we went into Bosnia, however, the more critical we became of most of our critics and, above all, of the United Nations and NATO.

During the war, international NGOs became involved in every aspect of Bosnian life, from providing aid, education programs, and health care to giving forestry and agricultural advice. Traveling into Bosnia under UN auspices, their vehicles were marked by round stickers on their windows showing a red line through a gun—meaning “No guns on board”—in order to distinguish them from UN military activity. Taken alone, the efforts of each NGO might be seen as acts of kindness. Bosnia, however, had not been short of food, doctors, teachers, or anything else before the war, and its misery resulted directly from nationalist aggression planned in Belgrade and Zagreb and condoned by the United Nations’ military policy. The actions of the humanitarian aid agencies simply camouflaged this fact.

Most people outside of Bosnia only heard about “warring ethnic factions.” The “sides” in the war were defined as Muslim, Croat, and Serb—a vision promoted by the British and U.S. governments, the United Nations, and most of the media. Behind every action the United Nations undertook, from the arms embargo to the many “peace plans” that all involved a division of territory based on ethnicity, stood this picture of ethnic division. If it had been a true one, then the United Nations’ international diplomacy might have made sense: separate the sides to stop the killing. However, it was not true.

It was a picture that suited the nationalist politicians in Serbia and Croatia, who hoped to divide Bosnia between them. As we made friends, first with refugees, then with people in communities inside Bosnia, we started to see things differently: there were sides in the war, but not Serb, Croat, and Muslim. The sides were made up of people who were either for or against ethnic cleansing, for or against a multi-ethnic society. The United Nations, responding to international pressure to “stop the killing,” intervened in Bosnia. However, it did so by pushing forward division that, given local and popular opposition, could only be achieved by violence. On many occasions we saw UN military activity, guided by the goal of “peace through division,” directly assist the ethnic cleansers. The United Nations’ arms embargo, for example, had no effect on Milosevic’s forces, who had access to all the resources of the old Yugoslav army. It had a terrible effect, however, on the defenders of multi-ethnic society, who had few weapons.

In 1993 I attended a conference in Germany of Bosnian exiles who were trying to get food through to the besieged cities of Sarajevo and Tuzla. One young woman explained that many humanitarian organizations were able to drive through military lines and reach the people under siege only by surrendering half of their cargos to the ethnic cleansers in control of those communities. She asked, “What have they achieved? They have simply helped prolong the agony. The people in Sarajevo or Tuzla have food for another day but so have the attackers.”

Food was used as a weapon during the war in Bosnia. Surrounded throughout the war, people of all ethnic backgrounds in the “free territory” of Tuzla fought back against ethnic partition. As a result they starved. While the nearly 60,000 refugees who had already been ethnically cleansed got some food aid from the United Nations and the humanitarian organizations working with it, the citizens of Tuzla who had resisted ethnic division got nothing. The determination of most NGOs not to take sides meant that they acted as surrogates to the United Nations’ solution. NGOs brought food but did nothing to help stop the murderous attack on multi-ethnic society. That was to be left to the politicians, but the politicians were pushing a peace plan that suited the ethnic cleansers. We started to call the NGOs “governmental NGOs” because their “neutral” stand so dovetailed with the policies of the United Kingdom and other governments.

In 1994 a woman manager in Tuzla’s thermoelectric power plant explained to me, “The West thinks lines can be drawn across Bosnia to bring peace. They cannot. There are two outlooks—that of the nationalists who want ethnically segregated societies and ours of a tolerant, mutual existence. These two outlooks cannot co-exist. One must destroy the other.” So what should the United Nations or the NGOs have done? Ask any defender of multi-ethnic Bosnia what they needed. The answer? Weapons, food, mass protests, solidarity—everything that could have helped them secure victory.

The Dayton agreement legitimized violence, ethnic cleansing, and barbarism, and the peace it brought can only be maintained with 30,000 UN personnel. In May 1995 a missile from the ethnic cleansers killed 75 young Tuzla citizens of all ethnic backgrounds. The Mayor, Selim Beslagic, faxed a letter to the UN in which he wrote:

Today in the early morning at 8:30 A.M., new missiles again hit the town center. The citizens of Tuzla have nothing to say to you. The civilization of the twentieth century has nothing to say either. You stand by in silence as innocent people are killed and you do nothing to stop it. Your behavior is nothing else but collaboration in this crime against humanity.

So much for the United Nations’ humanitarian intervention.

Tuzla buried its dead youngsters together in a public park, rather than in separate religious cemeteries, in order to show the world that they had died together because they had wanted to live together. At one point, we took our food lorries to the UN military headquarters in Zagreb and blocked the compound entrances to protest their role in strangling multi-ethnic Bosnia. On our lorries we wrote “Down with ethnic cleansing.” We had taken food to Bosnia not as charity for hungry victims, not as a way of imposing our agenda, but in solidarity with people fighting for their right to determine their own future, their right to control their own lives.