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Whose side is Amnesty on?

'"Death camps." Cattle trucks. Mass graves. It's enough to make you write a letter of complaint.' That was the headline on Amnesty International's full-page advert about Bosnia, published in the quality newspapers at the end of last year. Well, it was enough to make Joan Phillips write a letter of complaint - to Amnesty

Dear Amnesty International,

I'd like to complain about the way your advert draws a parallel between the Nazi Holocaust and the civil war in Bosnia today. Given the care with which you have selected your words, images and stories, there can be no doubt that the construction of such a parallel was deliberate.

'"Death camps." Cattle trucks. Mass graves.' These words immediately evoke memories of the Second World War, when the Nazis shunted the Jews to concentration camps in cattle trucks and disposed of their victims in mass graves. The implication is that similar crimes are being committed in Bosnia today.

Why the quotation marks around the words 'Death camps'? If you believe there are death camps in Bosnia, why the squeamishness about saying it straight? If you do not believe there are death camps in Bosnia, why use these words at all?

Loose talk

Has Amnesty any evidence to support the view that there are death camps in Bosnia? Despite all the loose talk in the media about the Serbs running Nazi-style death camps, no evidence has so far been produced to substantiate such claims. I notice that you do not use the words 'death camps' in your October 1992 report on Bosnia, in which you refer only to detention centres (Bosnia-Herzegovina: gross abuses of basic human rights).

In the text of your advert you refer readers to the main picture, showing an 'emaciated man, slowly dying in a detention camp'. The man was emaciated, but he was not dying. Happily, he is alive and well and living outside the war zones. After his release from detention he appeared in Hello! magazine in the autumn of last year. It is not necessary to be a fan of detention camps to question the use to which this picture has been put.

The story with which you begin your advert supports the message contained in the headline. It is the story of the Muslim villagers of Blagaj near Bosanski Novi. It tells how the villagers were rounded up by soldiers one afternoon in June 1992 and sent on a journey which invites comparisons with that experienced by Jews in the 1940s:

'Systematically they separated men from women and children. Systematically they searched for, and removed, all personal possessions and documents. And systematically they forced the villagers into cattle trucks. Sealed all doors and vents. And with no light, food, water or sanitation, started them on an unknown journey. When the train did stop some of the men recalled the gruesome taunt that "a mechanical digger had already excavated a communal grave" for them.'

Just in case we hadn't yet got the message, we are reminded that 'This isn't Europe in 1939. This is Europe in 1992'.

It is instructive to compare this shortened version of the Blagaj story with the longer one that appears in your October 1992 report. And it should be borne in mind that very few people are likely to read the detailed Amnesty reports, while you claim that three million will have seen the full-page adverts in the press.

In the report the word 'systematically' was not used once. Yet in the advert it is used three times in the space of three sentences, creating the impression that the Serbian soldiers behaved like the SS. In the report we learn that the 'cattle trucks' mentioned in the advert could have been freight wagons. Yet the words cattle trucks are preferred, presumably because they have connotations which the advert is keen to bring to our attention.

Mass grave

In the advert we are left to ponder the fate of the villagers, who are told that a mass grave is waiting for them. Yet in the report we are told that when the train stopped the detainees were allowed to leave the wagons and were given water; that women, children and men over 60 were released; and that men under 60 were taken to a camp and detained for anything from a few to over 48 days before being released. The villagers of Blagaj had to endure privation and terror, but, contrary to the impression created by your advert, they did not end up in a mass grave.

It is not especially what is said here that is objectionable, but rather what is not said. Amnesty's sin is one of omission. As it stands, the reader could draw a very different conclusion from this story than the true one. Amnesty may not have told lies, but it has not told the whole truth.

No names

Which brings me to my second complaint about your advert. I would like to complain about the insidious way in which the advert endorses the anti-Serbian bias that has become the hallmark of Western media coverage, especially in liberal papers such as the Guardian.

How can it possibly do this, you might reply, when not once does it mention the Serbs? But who needs to mention the Serbs by name when they have already been cast as villains by the press and TV? Your advert appeared in the context of a media campaign which has already found the Serbs guilty of just about every crime committed in Bosnia, and a lot of crimes that have not been committed in Bosnia or anywhere else in Europe since the 1940s. In this context it is hardly surprising that when people hear the words death camp, cattle truck, and mass grave, they immediately assume that the Serbs are responsible.

You try to avoid the charge of bias by being careful not to mention any ethnic group by name in your advert. But I would like to complain about your use of the word 'Bosnians'. After telling the story of the Blagaj villagers, the advert says that there are plenty of vile stories like this and worse - 'And not just against Bosnians'.

Who are the 'Bosnians' that Amnesty is referring to? Do you mean Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats or Bosnian Muslims - or do you mean all of these groups? After all, before the war the population of Bosnia was made up of 31 per cent Serbs, 44 per cent Muslims and 17 per cent Croats.

Presumably, 'Bosnians' is supposed to mean 'Muslims' in this context. Although the sentence suggests that Muslims are not the only victims of the war, which is true, it also suggests that only Muslims live in Bosnia, which is false. Bosnian has become synonymous with Muslim to the majority of British people. When you say that terrible crimes are being committed, 'and not just against Bosnians', it implies that the Serbs are not Bosnians, and confirms people's prejudice that they are foreign aggressors who have invaded Bosnia from without.

Who did what

The underlying anti-Serb message of the advert is reinforced by the examples of atrocities that you choose to use. The advert refers casually to 'stories of people going out to buy bread and dying in mortar attacks' in Sarajevo. Again, the advert carefully avoids being too specific about who did what to whom.

Yet the one incident of this sort which is likely to have stuck in people's minds is the bread queue massacre in Sarajevo on 27 May 1992, in which 16 people were killed and scores maimed. At the time, the attack was blamed on the Serbs, who were accused of firing a mortar from their positions on the hills above the city. The scenes of bloody mutilation in Sarajevo encouraged the EC to impose tough trade and oil sanctions against Serbia the same day.

The story of the bread queue massacre was one of the biggest propaganda lies to come out of Bosnia. Subsequently, it emerged that the carnage was not caused by a mortar bomb, and nor was the attack carried out by the Serbs. United Nations officials revealed that an explosive device had been planted at the scene, and voiced their suspicions that the atrocity had been perpetrated by Muslims in order to shock the 'international community' into action. Yet the mud has stuck to the Serbs ever since, because organisations like Amnesty have not bothered to question the media version of what happened.

Similarly, the advert says that in Sarajevo 'we see grief-stricken families under fire at the funerals of other civilian victims'. The incident that will probably have stuck in people's minds is the funeral of two small children killed by snipers, at which the grandmother of one of the dead girls was badly wounded when the mourners came under attack in the Lion cemetery.

Damage done

Again, the Serbs were blamed both for the sniper attack and the attack on the funeral. Nobody bothered to point out that one of the dead children, Vedrana Glavas, was Serbian. After the event UN officials expressed their opinion that the attack on the funeral had been carried out by Muslim forces. But by then the damage had already been done. By making casual reference to this event, Amnesty's ostensibly neutral advert ends up endorsing established prejudice against the Serbs.

You may protest that you have been careful to relate stories of atrocities committed against all sides - Serbs and Croats and Muslims. We are told about Father Matijevic, unable to sit down because he was so badly beaten; Milan Sobic, assaulted so savagely that he did not recover for weeks; Ljubica Lesic, violently raped by seven men; and Smilja Jusic, who saw her son garrotted with wire.

But who is to know that Matijevic is a Croat, that Sobic and Lesic are Serbs and that Jusic is a Muslim? Your readers are given names but no more. How are they to know the ethnic origin of these victims? In fact, given what they have been reading in the newspapers about Serbian 'rape camps', they are likely to have concluded that Lesic was a Muslim, and no doubt that all the others were victims of Serbian atrocities too.

Amnesty has always maintained that it never takes sides in wars such as that in the former Yugoslavia. It is true that Amnesty has not thrown in its lot with the Muslims, Croats or Serbs. But it has, in effect if not intent, taken sides. It has lent its authority to the view that the Serbs are the bad guys, and so strengthened the consensus in the West that action must be taken against Serbia. Many thousands of people will have seen your advert and, without seeing the name Serb mentioned once, will have concluded that the Serbs need to be taught a lesson.

Finally, I'd like to ask what is the point of this advert? You say it is to encourage readers to send a letter of complaint to the leaders of the warring factions and 'the other governments present' at the International Peace Conference of the Former Yugoslavia in Geneva. The advert suggests that these letters 'will goad them into action'. But sending letters, even in their thousands, has never stopped a civil war.

In fact the only place the advert could make an impact is in the West, not in Bosnia. It will have endorsed the view that 'the other governments present' - the Western powers - and various Western agencies have a key role to play as protectors of human rights amid the savagery in the former Yugoslavia.

The advert does not spell out what sort of action Amnesty has in mind. No doubt you will say that all Amnesty wants is action to end human rights abuses in Bosnia. But why do you think that the Western governments can help to achieve this aim?

The fact is that all intervention by the Western powers has had the effect of encouraging human rights abuses in the former Yugoslavia, not stopping them.

More of this

At every stage, Western interference has escalated the conflict and made things worse. It has turned a local conflict into a major international crisis. European support for Croatian nationalism triggered civil war, and set in motion a chain reaction that made conflict inevitable throughout the length and breadth of Yugoslavia. The anti-Serbian crusade conducted by Germany and America has further raised the stakes. The West's endorsement of the break-up of Yugoslavia has created minorities everywhere, and set ethnic groups at each other's throats as they vie for Western support. The result of Western diplomacy so far is a heavy toll of human misery, and the likelihood of more to come as the conflict spreads across the Balkans. Are you really saying that we need more of it?

Amnesty International advertisement, Guardian, 1 December 1992
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993

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