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Let’s Not Forget the Perils of Moral Equivalence in Times of Conflict

By: José Azel - Jun 6, 2016, 1:01 pm
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For most of the Bosnian War, the international community regarded aggressors and victims with moral equivalence. (wikimedia)

EspañolWhile I was recently in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Radovan Karadzic was found guilty of crimes against humanity by The Hague’s war crimes tribunal. Karadzic had served as President of the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina during that country’s war that lasted between 1992 and ’95. The Bosnia experience spotlights the perils of “moral equivalence” in foreign policy.

The term posits that no moral difference exists between the actions or tactics of the various sides of a conflict. For example, apologists for terrorist groups in the Middle East suggest a moral equivalence between terrorists and the Israeli military.

The logic of moral equivalence is that no party in a conflict is worse than the other. This view underlies the foreign policy doctrine of the Obama administration in the Middle East and elsewhere, and was evident in the President’s visit to Cuba.

For most of the Bosnian War, the international community regarded aggressors and victims with moral equivalence. The result was the genocidal ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosniak civilians that claimed over 200,000 lives and the rape of an estimated 20,000 women.

Following World War II, communist leader Josip Tito ruled Yugoslavia, which included the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Yugoslavia had always been home to a very diverse population. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the population was made up of around 44 percent Muslim Bosniaks, 33 percent Orthodox Serbs and 17 percent Catholic Croats.

After Tito’s death in 1980, tensions emerged among the republics that made up Yugoslavia. By 1991, the country had disintegrated and war had ensued. As communist ideology lost its potency, ethnicity and religious affiliations experienced a renaissance.

The aftermath of the collapse of Yugoslavia represents one of the greatest tragedies of recent times. It is also one of the least understood. Anthropology Professor Roland Alum reminds us of the inherent complexity: “Religion — as a belief system — interacts with virtually every socio-cultural manifestation, such as family, politics, law, economics, clothing, health and diet…”

When Bosnia-Herzegovina sought independence from Yugoslavia, forces within the country had a different idea. The Bosnian Serbs proclaimed a separate republic, and the Bosnian Croats also had their own agenda.

At the outset of the war, Serb (Orthodox) forces attacked the Bosniak (Muslim) and Croat (Catholic) civilian populations in Bosnia. Later, the Croat forces shifted from defense to capturing territory from the Bosniaks. At this point two Christianities were engaged in an ethnic cleansing of their Muslim countrymen.

All sides committed war crimes. Though supporters of moral equivalence claim one party in a conflict is not worse than the other, the doctrine of moral equivalence — often disguised as a doctrine of neutrality or fairness — is anything but fair or neutral. According to a Bosnia War report by the United Nations, the Serbian forces were responsible for 90 percent of the war crimes. Croatian forces were responsible for six percent, and Bosniak forces for four percent.

When the oppressors and oppressed are treated with moral equivalence, the stage is set for unexpected consequences that may turn tragic. Throughout this conflict, the international community was ineffective in peacekeeping efforts in a war of neighbor against neighbor.

In July 1995, a battalion of United Nations Dutch peacekeepers handed over the town of Srebrenica to the Serbian forces. It is estimated that over 8,000 Muslim men were executed in the following days by the Bosnian Serbs.

Eventually, the United States and NATO acted decisively and the Bosnian War came to a quick end with the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995.

But the moral damage continues to this day. To accommodate the ethnic and religious divisions of the war, Bosnia-Herzegovina has had to implement the world’s most complicated system of government.

I will spare you the details of the unnecessarily complex structure of government. It is only necessary to note that the system is led by a tripartite presidency — three presidents — one Bosniak, one Serb, one Croat.

This three-member body serves as the head of state for a four year term, but the presidency rotates every eight months. That is, the country has a new president from a different ethnic-religious background every eight months.

When I asked my translator in Bosnia what each president did during his eight-month turn, her succinct response revealed everything you need to know.

“They drink coffee,” she said.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.