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  • UN-Anonymous: Reflections on Human Rights in Peace Negotiations*
  • Felice D. Gaer (bio)

I. The Role of the Human Rights Community

In contrast to the pathetically weak response by nation states and international organizations to ethnic cleansing and the war in Bosnia, the human rights community stands out for having focused world attention on atrocious abuses in flagrant disregard of all civilized behavior, and on the need to uphold international principles and promises. The human rights movement pursued the truth in a timely and principled manner, creatively championed emergency sessions and new international war crimes bodies to press international officials to look into rights abuses, and called urgently for the protection of those suffering. Its influence in making human rights issues a mainstream concern in the conflict was impressive. Thus it is particularly surprising that an anonymous author took a giant fly swatter to the [End Page 1] movement in a recent issue of the Human Rights Quarterly. 1 “Thousands of people are dead who should have been alive—because moralists were in quest of the perfect peace,” he wrote in the June 1996 lead article. 2

II. Behavior Can Prolong Negotiations: Do Facts Speak Louder Than Words?

Anonymous’ conclusion that the “moralists” prolonged the war by raising demands for justice is unsupported in his article. It is true that the war was prolonged. But it can be argued far more strongly that the unwillingness of the international community to uphold the principles it proclaimed emboldened the ethnic cleansers and warriors to continue to conduct both atrocities and military battles for “facts on the ground,” thereby prolonging the peace negotiations. Moreover, the UN and European Union negotiators could not deliver on either their threats or their promises—not merely because they lacked “armies” and “clout” other than economic sanctions, as Anonymous notes, but particularly because of the vagaries of policy and the shifting support from officials of different states. Eventually, this rendered them ineffective as authoritative international negotiators. As a result, new negotiating teams (such as the contact group, and later Richard Holbrook’s team) entered the picture. Each set of new faces further prolonged the search for peace.

At least three different groups of “moralists” come in for criticism at different points in Anonymous’ article:

  1. 1. the human rights movement, including international officials appointed within the UN framework to report on, evaluate, prosecute, and adjudicate information about the atrocities and abuses in former Yugoslavia since 1991;

  2. 2. unnamed “pundits and penwarriors” who reportedly sent up “howls” and charges of “Munich” over the Vance-Owen peace plan and plans that followed it; and

  3. 3. officials of the Clinton Administration in Washington, termed the “moralists of yesteryear” and “unrepentant apologists” for the Dayton Accords.

Anonymous often casually mixes the three categories together, appearing to blame the human rights community for the actions of politicians, news commentators, and others. He treats all the “moralists” as if they were [End Page 2] a single entity, organized and unified in their demands, and points his finger at them. In contrast, he thoughtfully attempts to draw lines between the functions of UN special rapporteurs and peace negotiators. Anonymous wrongly implies that all the “moralists” had the same impact, or perhaps motive: to prolong the killing. It is rather surprising that someone who repeatedly articulates such a sense of moral responsibility for the ongoing killing is so quick to adopt a realpolitik approach to its outcome.

Anonymous cites the London Conference as the source of the principles that guided the UN-EU negotiators. And yet the London Conference offers evidence that the international community itself prolonged the war by offering only lip service to the principles it approved: international peacekeepers and officials failed utterly to back up the normative and human rights principles that were proclaimed at the London Conference and in each of the peace plans that followed. The implications of the international community’s inaction can also be summed up by repeating Anonymous’ remark that “thousands of people are dead who should have been alive.” Tens of thousands more have suffered atrocious abuses. And yet, ironically, it is the human rights community that feels responsibility for the atrocities it cannot prevent, while the international...

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