Karadzic and Srebrenica

Teach British school children the lessons of the July 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims in a UN "safe

The arrest of Radovan Karadzic could not have been more timely. Just as international institutions needed a boost, international public enemy number one is delivered to the Hague tribunal. Received wisdom had it that the Serbs would never hand over their most prized war criminal and Karadzic would end his days in a monastery somewhere in the mountains of eastern Bosnia. But sometimes good things really do happen. What's more, Karadzic was working in alternative therapy. What a perfect profession for a mass murdering psychopath.

I am not a great one for making moral equivalences: wars and the atrocities they engender tend to be historically specific. The holocaust was uniquely evil. The IRA is not the same as al-Qaeda. Israel is not the same as apartheid-era South Africa.

But I have always believed that all British school children should be taught about the unique horror of the Srebrenica massacre in the same way that they are all taught about Auschwitz. The failure of the international community to come to the aid of the 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men massacred in the safe haven of Srebrenica in July 1995. The massacre had a huge influence on Tony Blair's policy of humanitarian intervention, which he relied on as justification for intervention in Kosovo and, to some extent Afghanistan and Iraq.

When I heard about the arrest, I went back to the brilliant book "Safe Area" by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Rohde who had these words to say in 1997 on Karadzic and his partner in war crime Ratko Mladic:

"Both men appear to have been driven by a classic deep-rooteed racism that lay at the core of their nationalism. The Muslim prisoners around Bratunac [a town next to Srebrenica] that night [July 13 1995] were things that "bred" too quickly. the prisoners were also an opportuninty for Mladic and KAradzic to make a dramatic hitorical statement.
For them, the fall of Srebrenica was part of the Serb people's centuries-old struggle against Islam and the Turks, It was an opportunity to avenge the Serbs killed in the Srebrenica area during World War II and an opportunity to wipe out several thousand soldiers whom the manpower-short Bosnian Serb army would face again if they were exchanged."

Rohde continues:

"It would be comforting to think that the executions were a strategic mistake; that the massive manhunt Mladic launched to capture Srebrenica's men diverted his troops and allowed the Croatian Army to advance unchecked on the other side of the country. But the Bosnian Serbs still control 49 per cent of Bosnia. Both Karadzic and Mladic have gotten away with Europe's worst massacre since World War II.
American, French and British policy in Bosnia has created twin cancers. Serb nationalist were taught that 'ethnic cleansing' could succeed; Muslims learned that their lives didn't matter."

Writing in the New York Times today Rohde says that the arrest gives new credibility to the war crimes tribunal. I hope he's right.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.