U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon paid a visit to Srebrenica today to offer a kind of indirect apology for the failure of the United Nations, and the wider world, to prevent the Bosnian Serb military's 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mostly men and boys, in what amounted to the largest act of mass killing in Europe since World War II.
"There is perhaps nowhere in the world more difficult, more painful, than here for the United Nations secretary general to visit," said Ban, joined by relatives of the victims of Srebrenica. "We must learn from the lessons of Srebrenica."
Indeed, the main purpose of the visit appeared to be to send a message about Syria, where more than 15,000 people have died during a brutal crackdown on the country's 16-month long uprising. A major U.N. diplomatic effort to contain the violence and negotiate a peaceful political transition between the government and the increasingly militarized opposition unraveled last week when Russia, backed by China, vetoed a third Western-backed resolution that supported a U.N. transition plan and threatened sanctions against Damascus if it failed to cease its use of heavy weapons in urban areas.
"The international community failed to provide the necessary protection to many people who were killed at the time when they needed our support," Ban said, surrounded by relatives of the victims of Srebrenica. "We have to do all [that we can] to protect civilians, to prevent and to stop bloodshed, particularly in Syria now."
"The international community must be united not to see any further bloodshed in Syria because I do not want to see any of my successors, after 20 years, visiting Syria apologizing for what we could have done now to protect the civilians in Syria -- which we are not doing now."
The comparison to Srebrenica must resonate for those leading the effort to end the violence in Syria. Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League special envoy for Syria headed the U.N.'s peacekeeping department during the 1995 massacre, and commissioned a damning review of the failure of the U.N. and key Western powers to stop the killing.
The U.N.'s peacekeeping chief, Hervé Ladsous, announced in Damascus yesterday that the U.N. had already sent half of the U.N.'s 300 observers in Syria home for the "time being."
But with the violence worsening, their withdrawal appeared to be the first stage in the ultimate shut down of the U.N. mission in Syria. And the death toll in Syria seems all but certain to rise.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.