DID YOU KNOW?  -- Three years before the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide, Serbs torched Bosniak villages and killed at least 3,166 Bosniaks around Srebrenica. In 1993, the UN described the besieged situation in Srebrenica as a "slow-motion process of genocide." In July 1995, Serbs forcibly expelled 25,000 Bosniaks, brutally raped many women and girls, and systematically killed 8,000+ men and boys (DNA confirmed).

23 June, 2012


(Text provided by our friends at the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia)
David L. Phillips, former executive director of the Holocaust survivor’s Elie Wiesel Foundation, was an adviser to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992-94. He is currently Director of the Program on Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding at American University.

Radovan Karadzic threatened to kill me. “One night you’ll wake up to feel cold steel on your throat,” he warned. “I’ll slit your throat and kill your children too.”

By David L. Phillips

It was August 18, 1992. We were at the Victoria Conference Center in London where world leaders had gathered to address the emergency in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I was attending as a member of the Bosnian delegation. Volunteering to assist was consistent with my work in the United States where I was serving at the time as president of the Congressional Human Rights Foundation.

My involvement started when Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic called me at my Georgetown office in February of 1992. Silajdzic was ringing from a phone booth in the Mayflower Hotel. He was visiting Washington, D.C. to warn of imminent attacks by Belgrade-backed Serbs against Bosnia. According to Silajdzic, “Milosevic’s project was to create a ‘Greater Serbia’ from the ashes of former Yugoslavia.” He warned prophetically that Milosevic’s “virus of ethnic nationalism would destroy Bosnia’s tradition of multiethnic tolerance and interreligious understanding.”

Silajdzic was correct. In the Spring, Milosevic’s lieutenants Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic unleashed the worst violence in Europe since World War II. By the time the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Commission met in June 1992, tens of thousands had been killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes. Karadzic coined the term “ethnic cleansing” as the brand for his brutality. The international community expressed concern, appointed a special rapporteur to investigate, and agreed to meet again. The London Conference (August 17, 18) was co-chaired by UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali and Britain’s Prime Minister John Major on behalf of the European Union. More than 50 heads of state gathered to “take action” against the slaughter of civilians in Bosnia.

The first day of the London Conference, August 17, was filled with speeches and bilateral consultations in caucus rooms adjoining the main hall. Mid-day on the 18th, the international community revealed its plan. President President Alija Izetbegovic, Siljadzic, Mohammed Sacirbey and I met John Major and Acting US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. Eagleburger started the meeting by talking about the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom. He laid out a plan to sanction Serbia, end the shelling of Sarajevo by sequestering artillery, and provide emergency relief to civilians displaced by the conflict. The U.S. would lead an effort to authorize robust deterrence in the UN Security Council while the EU would focus on humanitarian assistance and reconstruction. No military intervention was envisioned.

Silajdzic protested vehemently. “These are just words,” he bemoaned. “We have no guarantees. My people are being slaughtered every day.” John Major leaned forward summoning earnestness, “You have my word of honor. If the shelling of Sarajevo does not stop within 30 days, the Royal Air Force will be overhead.”

I went down to the coffee bar at the Victoria Conference Center. The plenary was on-break and the room was full of people. I stopped to chat with Ibrahim Rugova, the President of Kosova who, like the Bosnian Serb delegation, was attending the conference but, as a non-member state, was excluded from the official proceedings. I approached the bar and found myself shoulder to shoulder with Karadzic. I was stunned to find myself rubbing elbows with Europe’s most wanted criminal. I do not know what possessed me but I turned to him and asked, “Are you Dr. Radovan Karadzic?” “I am,” he replied. I introduced myself and responded, “It is my understanding that you are responsible for leading the worst genocide in Europe since the Nazis. If you are behind this ethnic cleaning, then you should stand trial before an international tribunal and spend the rest of your life in prison.”

Karadzic could not believe his ears. No one dared speak to him like this. “Who are you?” he stammered. “What gives you the right.” That’s when he threatened to kill me and my family.

“One night you’ll wake up to feel cold steel on your throat,” he warned. “I’ll slit your throat and kill your children too.”

I was terrified. I knew Karadzic and his henchmen relied on fear to intimidate adversaries. If I revealed my abject terror, I would be truly vulnerable. I summoned my inner calm and looking Karadzic directly in the eye, gave him a broad smile and said, “You know Radovan there is nothing you can do to hurt me, and if you tried you would only hurt yourself.” My response at first bewildered and then enraged Karadzic even more. He started cursing me in Serbian. A fat smelly henchman stinking of body odor and alcohol came over and pushed me against the wall. I just walked away. A hundred people had seen the encounter, which I reported to Scotland Yard.

Moments later, I was called by Silajdzic to a meeting with Boutros Ghali and Cyrus Vance. They reviewed the international community’s commitment to Bosnia. Boutros Ghali leaned forward and looking deep into Izetbegovic’s eyes said, “Mr. President, this is your best and last chance for peace. What is your decision?” “There is no timetable — no guarantee,” Izetbegovic stammered. His daughter was weeping in the corner of the room. Bosnia’s future lay in the balance.

I asked the diplomats to leave protesting that the Bosnian delegation needed time to discuss their offer. Ten minutes later, Boutros Ghali returned. I put my foot in the door and barred his entry. “We need more time,” I admonished.

Silajdzic opposed the deal. He did not trust cynical European leaders to enforce the accord. I argued that rejecting the offer risked causing the world to walk away and abandon Bosnia to Karadzic and his killers. When Boutos-Ghali and Vance finally returned, nobody knew what Izetbegovic would do. “What is your decision, Mr. President?” The minute of silence felt like an eternity. Finally Izetbegovic whispered, “I accept.”

The deal became known as the Vance-Owen Plan. When it was announced, I saw Milosvic’s delight. He went to the coffee bar to tell Karadzic and slapped his back. The Serbs had prevented a robust response from the international community. Hiding behind Vance-Owen, the international community dithered while Karadzic and Ratko Mladic maintained their campaign of terror for the next three years. Without the stalwart leadership of Izetbegovia and Siladzic, Bosnia would have simply disappeared. Encountering Karadzic intensified my empathy with Bosnia’s victims. At the London Conference, I learned what it meant to live with fear and look evil in the eye.

Just as justice is due Karadzic, the world owes Bosnia. Bosnia’s leaders embrace the recent initiative to break down official ethnic divisions and strengthen human rights, the country deserves a fast-track to membership in the European Union. It has been easy to blame local politicians for Bosnia’s lingering problems when, in fact, the West has failed to hold war criminals and their protectors accountable while making empty promises of rewards for conciliation.