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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993