Nicholas Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of state, declared, at a press briefing he gave after returning from a recent trip to the Balkan hot spots, that former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic “ordered the execution of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica.”

Over the last few years, I have sought to get at the truth concerning what happened at Srebrenica.  In 2002, I wrote an article for a London magazine, which I entitled “Srebrenica: No Definitive Verdict Yet,” in which I summarized several reports: The United Nations Report, the Dutch Report, the Belgrade Law Center Report, the Republika Srpska Report, and some nonofficial studies.  While all of these report massacres, in none of them is there proof that Mladic or anyone else ordered large-scale killings or that the number of victims exceeded 2,500.  More than one report alleges that many of the victims were killed in armed combat.

Does Undersecretary Burns have proof for his charge?

Recent stories about the discovery of a videotape reportedly showing Serbs in Bosnia killing some Muslims seem to suggest the validity of charges against the Serbs, but the tape shows the massacre of only six men, and it is impossible to tell from the tape anything about the total number of victims or the identity of the perpetrators.

There are other aspects to the story, however.  Without taking away any of the guilt of the Serbs, how are we to assess the blame of others?  First, there is the U.N. Security Council, which established the “safe areas” in Bosnia—among them, Srebrenica.  U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Gahli twice reminded the Security Council that it had failed to demilitarize the safe areas.  In a 1994 document, he pointed to “the need to demilitarise the safe areas and thus establish a regime that would be in line with the Geneva Convention of 12 August 1949 and the Additional Protocols thereto of 1997, which have gained general acceptance in the international community.”

In a May 30, 1995, report, the secretary-general also declared that, “In recent months, [Muslim] government forces have considerably increased their military activity in and around most safe areas, and many of them . . . have been incorporated into the broader military campaign of the government side. . . . The Government also maintains a substantial number of troops in Srebrenica (in this case a violation of a demilitarization agreement), Gorazda and Zepa . . . ”  So, the Muslims were not exactly innocent.

Sadly, the Security Council ignored the secretary-general’s warnings.

In a similar category are the observations of former British Foreign Secretary David Owen, who was appointed by the European Community as cochairman of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia.  In his book, Balkan Odyssey, Owen flatly asserts that the establishment of the safe areas was “the most irresponsible decision taken during my time as Co-Chairman”—simply because the United Nations failed to demilitarize them.  The Muslims, he says, “saw nothing wrong in being protected in safe areas by the UN and attacking out of the safe areas.”  Owen also made a related charge: “By acquiescing in the Croatian government’s seizure of Western Slavonia, the Contact Group had in effect given the green light to the Bosnian Serbs to attack Srebrenica and Zepa.”

Consequently, several parties were, in effect, accomplices to the crimes.  Those who are charged and found guilty will pay for their actions, but when and how will the Security Council, the Muslims, and others involved pay for their misdeeds?

The concept of a safe haven (or “open city”) has a considerable history.  The most familiar example is Paris during World War II.  Declared an open city by the French (which meant that it would not be defended), the Germans could walk in without bombing it.  Similarly, when the Germans left Rome, they indicated that it would not be defended, and so the Allies did not bomb it.  Conversely, because the Japanese insisted on defending Manila, we leveled it, even though it was an Allied city.

I ended my 2002 piece thus: “I believe that it is obvious from what I have written . . . that before we can have a final verdict on Srebrenica, a good deal of arduous work remains to be done.”  Unless Secretary Burns has some secret that he has not yet revealed, my conclusion still holds.