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Essay: Who bears the biggest weight for failure – genocide in Srebrenica

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  • Subject area(s): International relations
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  • Published: 15 September 2019*
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  • Tags: Genocide essays

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On 22nd November 2017, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced to life imprisonment the former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić for his crimes committed against the Muslim population in Srebrenica and other war crimes during the Balkan conflicts. This was one of the last judgments handed down by the ICTY, which was resolved later that year. The judgment came more than 22 years after the genocide in Srebrenica, which is seen as the worst war crime committed on European soil after the Second World War. Between 6th and 23th July, Bosnian Serb military and paramilitary forces invaded the ‘Safe Area’ of Srebrenica and without any difficulties systematically killed more than 8000 men. This happened while Srebrenica was under the protection of the Dutch UNIPROFOR peace force and the events are now known as one of the biggest failures in the history of the UN.
It is no doubt that units of the Bosnian Serbs army are the main perpetrators of genocide committed. Therefore the unanswered question is – who decided to let it happen?  In this essay I will explore who should bear the biggest weight for failure to prevent the events from happening. To be able to asses this I will investigate the history, the cases brought against the Dutch,…
I will argue (complete during the course of writing):

  • UN for its lack of clear guidance in what they mission was and the UN could prevent the genocide from happening, if it would approve the air strikes on time.
  • All those UN members states who signed the go ahead for the creation of safe area and failed to contribute the necessary men to for its execution
  • The US
  • The Dutch – the Dutchbat were in an impossible position but also bear some culpability – they should protect the people who found the safety in the compound
  • The Bosnia for failure to give up earlier on the enclaves
  • The states were not prepared to risk the lives of UNIPROFOR’s soldiers
  • The main reason for the failure of the intervention was the disagreement between the international community, in particular within the UN, in organizing a strategy of the safe area

Out of 20 people indicted for crimes committed at Srebrenica, final judgments have been issued against 15 individuals. (https://www.ft.com/content/93a5c67a-26d2-11e5-9c4e-a775d2b173ca)
The 1990s saw a flurry of measures whereby areas were vaguely designated as ‘safe areas’.  In the absence of a standard legal definition, a ‘safe area’, has been also known as  “humanitarian area”, “protection zone”, “protection area”, “refugee zone”, “safe heaven“ and “safety zone”, to name a few.   These terms are used to cover a wide variety of attempts to declare certain areas off limits so far as military targeting is concerned.   The ‘safe heaven’ concept was successfully applied in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War  and this experience inspired similar practices in different parts of the world, namely in the 1990s, in Rwanda, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Nevertheless, the term safe area or haven as often referred should not be romanticized, since as Heidenrich described it is only a ‘little more than a benign form of ghettoizing’ and certainly ‘not a place where the people can live a normal life … For the conditions inside are almost always abominable’.
It is fair to assume that the idea to create ‘safe areas’ in Bosnia came from their successful implementation in the case of Iraqi Kurds. Indeed, it was in this context that Bosnian Foreign Minister Haris Silajdžić, reportedly asked in 1992: ‘Why can’t we have a safe haven like the Kurds?’  The problem arose from the start, since a number of conditions that led to a success in Iraq, did not apply in Bosnia. First, the safe haven covered a relatively large and contiguous piece of land that bordered on allied Turkey, which meant that forces could easily be deploy and withdraw.  Secondly, the Kurdish save heaven had all the necessary military and humanitarian resources, because Turkey, back up by US, had a vested interest in keeping the Iraqi Kurds outside their borders.  Thirdly, the supporters of the save haven did not need to be seen as impartial, nor did they require the consent of the Iraqi government, since the victorious coalition had just defeated the Iraqi army in Kuwait.
The idea to create safe areas for the Muslim population in Bosnia was first officially proposed in the winter 1992 by the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Cornelio Sommaruga.  He proposed to set up ‘protected zones’ based on the agreement off all parties in the conflict in Bosnia.  For its functioning they would therefore need the agreement of the Bosnian Serbs as well as Bosnian government, and its agreement with the dematerializations of the area. Only a few smaller countries supported the proposal.  The US opposed to the idea as it would require a large reinforcement of the UN troops on the ground and significantly increase the level of risk faced by those troops.  Moreover, they believed that the safe areas would give the seal of approval to ethnic cleansing.   France, Germany and Great Britain favoured instead a different approach  – the natural development of zones of safety around already existing UN deployments.
One of the strongest supporters for their creation was Netherlands, which suggested that a new mandate be given to the troops in Bosnia and that UNIPROFOR be reinforced.  They as well found little support for their idea, as none of the countries was willing to provide the additional military resources and expressed that concern that this would draw them into a war with the Serbs.
Yamashite argued that one of the reasons for the proposal to gain little support at first, was in the notion of neutrality. If the humanitarian spaces would be created in line with Summaruga’s proposal or even on the basis of the precedents of the save haven, the Bosnian Serbs would have seen it as an intervention in favour of the Muslims who would have benefited from their creation.  Many academics emphasized the fear of the UN that the creation of the safe areas might encourage ethnic cleansing either by giving the Bosnian Serbs a ‘place to dump the Muslims’ or by giving them the permission to continue with the ethnic cleansing in other areas.
By 1993, the Bosnian Serbs controlled 70 percent of the Bosnian territory. All hope seemed to be running out for the Bosniak population when the UN finally realized that Bosniaks had limited weapons to defend themselves, thanks to the embargo they themselves had imposed. Fearful of the fall of Srebrenica, the head of United Nations Protection Force (UNIPROFOR), general Philippe Morillon, decided to visit Srebrenica without an approval from his superiors in New York. When he was setting out to leave Srebrenica, he was surrounded by women and children who didn’t let him leave.  In the desperate situation he promised them: ‘You are now under protection of the UN forces… I will never abandon you.’  Morillon’s superiors in New York now feared that they were losing control and that he pressured the UN into the role of a ‘safe area’ protector, a responsibility they desperately tried to avoid.
When the situation in Srebrenica deteriorated the idea to create a safe area once again resurfaced. On 13th April 1993, when Serbian commanders notified the UNHCR  that they would occupy Srebrenica in two days, in case it doesn’t surrender. When neither negotiations nor threats with new sanctions led to any results, the UN Security Council passed the resolution 819, which demanded that the ‘Srebrenica and its surroundings be a safe area’.  But in the rushed decision-making, the resolution was severely inconsistent. The Council agreed on creation of a safe area without specifying what the ‘area’ was and how its safety could be achieved.  There was no mention in the resolution who and in what way will make the area ‘safe’. UNIPROFOR was limited and was declared only as a supervisor of the whole action. It is likely that the Security Council members assumed that the declaration would be in itself enough that the Bosnian Serbs will respect it, as the UN protected it.
Another problem was the that the safe areas must be accessible to all ethnic groups, given their humanitarian activity and exclusively for civilians. Accordingly it should be demilitarized. Although the safe area was demilitarized, this was not done completely and in line with the agreement. Although control of demilitarization was one of the key tasks of UNIPROFOR, it was done very superficially. The consequence was that the Bosnian Army was carrying out attacks on the Bosnian Serbs from it, which sparked even greater hatred of the Muslims.
The problem here lies with the UN, who never systematically tried to demilitarize the area. After the Resolution 819, the Muslims had to hand in their weapons within 72-hours of the arrival of the Canadians in the enclave. The problem arose which area should be demilitarized and could it be achieved in 72-hours. Both issues were cleverly addressed in a single solution – by keeping the area of demilitarization limited to the town of Srebrenica itself, Muslim forces could move to areas under their control outside the town and avoid being disarmed. In fact, Kofi Annan, the UN’s Under-Secretary General for peacekeeping Operations even send a confidential message to General Wahlgren indicating that the demilitarization in Srebrenica need to be pursued too actively.
UN officials knew from the very start, that the Resolution 819 has hidden dangers for the organization that was still at the time convinced, that it will not take any sides. Shashi Tharoor, special assistant to the UN undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, believed that the declaration of safe areas will benefit only one side in the conflict and will require resources, that the peacekeeping forces do not have.’  His predictions proved to be true.
From Resolution 819 (1993) to Resolution 824 (1993)
There are two types of safe areas – those that are based on the consent and demilitarization and are led by the peacemaking forces; and others who are based on neither of those and are in its entirety protected by a credible military deterrent. Sadly, the safe areas in Bosnia did not fit neither of those types: they were not established with the consent of all parties leading to a successful demilitarization, nor with an credible military capability.  Secretary- General, Kofi Annan, makes it clear in his report on The Fall of Srebrenica that that this half – heartened approach made for the failure of the safe area in Bosnia and implies that if the international community had consistently followed one type, Srebrenica would have been saved.
After two months from the first Resolution 819, on 4th June 1993, another 5 enclaves were declares as ‘safe areas’ – Sarajevo, Žepa, Tuzla, Goražde in Bihać with Resolution 824.  It was no surprise it would came to this since Srebrenica was not the only enclave that was facing Serbian offensive and needed protection.
Ironically, there was probably no place in the Balkans less safe than the safe areas, as they were never totally guaranteed security from outside aggression.  Out of six Bosnian safe areas, three – Goražde, Žepa, and Srebrenica – were filled with Bosnian Muslims but deep in Bosnian Serb territory, completely depended on the consent of the surrounding Bosnian Serb forces to even exist, let alone fed by the road bound food convoys of international relief agencies.
Nevertheless, the resolution went a step further and defined the concept of the safe area as an area ‘free from armed attacks and from any other hostile acts which endanger the well-being and the safety of the inhabitants.  What is more, a subtle, but important different from Resolution 819 is that ‘attacks’ and ‘hostile acts’ were here linked to the safety of the inhabitants in the area, whereas Resolution 819 avoided such identification.  Additionally, similarly as Resolution 819, the Resolution was not clear about the security and the protection of the civilians. Paragraph 8 declared ‘its readiness, in the event of the failure by any party to comply with the present resolution, to consider immediately the adoption of any additional measures necessary with a view to its full implementation, including to ensure respect for the safety of the United Nations personnel’. In the Council terminology, ‘any measures necessary’ usually mean the use of the punitive force. This suggests that the Council was moving closer to the idea that force should be used against any party endangering the lives of the inhabitants of Srebrenica. However, the possible use of force was in the clear contradiction with the idea of demilitarization and from the two principles of peacekeeping operations – neutrality and non-use of force.
The implementation of Resolution 824 was hindered from many factors on the ground. Firstly, the UNIPROFOR didn’t receive the reinforcement of 34,000 men, insofar as they deemed necessary by the General Secretary, to ensure the full protection of the safe areas. Secondly, the parties to the conflict did not understand or respect the concept of safe areas, which, among other things, was reflected in the constant restriction of freedom of movement to the staff and the UN, blocking humanitarian aid and blocking access to supplies.
Regarding the number of troops to be stationed in each safe area, it is known today that It is known today that when then “UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali requested 34,000 UN troops to man the five safe areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina, no nations was willing to contribute the troops to carry out the ambitious plan”. After re-evaluation, the UN Secretary General submitted a new request and the Security Council eventually authorized 7,300 troops. Ultimately, “only, 3,500 troops were deployed” to protect all the safe areas.
Ultimately, the safe area concept of protecting was not met with sufficient measures to achieve its purpose. The UN came to the realization then, although eager to help in a conflict, it did not have its own army and relied on its members to contribute troops.
In such conditions the success of any mission was highly questionable.
It was clear from the beginning that the implementation of the resolution will be a problem, since many counties made it clear that they are not prepared to contribute any of the troops, beginning with Spain. The French made it clear that they wanted their troops concentrated around Bihać and Sarajevo because of their safety and they were not prepared to take under their wing another safe area. The US ruled our sending ground troops and they said they will provide air support for the safe areas. The British politely requested that they wish their troops to remain in Bosnian areas where they were located so far and Russia didn’t want to contribute any either. Consequently, also the Scandinavian counties decided not to contribute any of the troops, which set the UN in an uncomfortable position. Although the Canadians were still in Srebrenica, French in Bihać and some British troops in Tuzla, none of the counties was prepared to take over one of the remaining two eastern enclaves.  Except for the Netherlands.
Additionally, two more resolutions, 836 and 900, declared these “safe areas” to be protected by UN troops. In regard to Srebrenica, resolution 819 stated that “all parties and others concerned treat Srebrenica and its surroundings as a ‘safe area’, which should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act”.  Resolutions 836 and 900 state that “the safe areas should be considered of temporary nature and their primary objective is to prevent the combatants from attacking civilians and allow displaced people to return to their homes in peace.”
Safe area – safe for whom?
Any resolution of the Security Council is pointless, unless it is implemented. But there are many of them that despite implementation do not achieve much. We can also include Resolutions 819 and 824 between them. The problems of such resolutions originate primarily from the time at which they were accepted and, for the most part, for some reason. The establishment of the safe area was not a well-thought-out decision, but was an emergency measure. Members of the UN Council formed it for the wrong reason – because it was necessary to do something. Public pressure was too high. In the NIOD report on Srebrenica , it is written that the then Secretary General B.B Ghali has repeatedly warned the Security Council of the shortcomings of the safe area concept and in its reports warned of the unsustainable situation in Srebrenica, which can no longer be continued. He warned of the lack of military resources and how the Bosnian government used Srebrenica for military purposes and is attacking the Bosnian Serbs from the area. he concluded that the regime of safe areas is only meant as a temporary solution.
The establishment of a safe area in Srebrenica did not help much to its inhabitants and all the Muslim refugees. Moreover, they made it easier for the Serbs to execute their ethnic cleansing plan. Muslim refugees were coming from other parts voluntarily, to seek refuge under the protection of UN, convinced that the Dutch soldiers will protect them. However, the Serbs had got them gathered right where they wanted them to have.
Moreover, not only were the areas not safe for the Muslim population, but they also threatened the lives of Serb civilians there, as Bosnians exploited the areas for the attacks on them. Here again, it is necessary to reiterate that the originally safe areas were to be demilitarized by Dutch soldiers who fully demilitarized them as being successful. Which was not quite true.
The concept of a safe area was based on very fragile foundations. Its deficiencies were visible from the very beginning. One of the biggest was the lack of will of the Member States to provide an additional number of troops needed to protect the sites. How should the areas be safe without they those who are supposed to make them safe?
The Security Council members at the time voted for unanimously for Resolutions 819 and 824: Brazil, Cape Verde, Djibouti, Hungary, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Spain, Venezuela and all the five permanent members: US, UK, France, Russia and China.  It is appalling and disappointing therefore that none of those were prepared to offer further their troops to execute the Resolutions. Especially the permanent members, who should led by example. It is clear, that many other counties, like Scandinavian counties were unwilling to contribute their troops, since none of the major players in the league contributed any of theirs. So up till this point, Netherlands should be congratulated, not criticized, since it was the only one left, willing to execute the plan.
All in all, the safe areas were therefore not safe for anyone. Neither for Muslims, nor for Serbian civilian and even not for Dutch soldiers who were not capable of defending themselves, let alone civilians. The responsibility for this is borne by the Security Council, because it adopted a resolution that could not be implemented, and UNIPROFOR was assigned a mandate that could not be enforced under such conditions.
The conditions on the ground can be summarized nicely Shashi Tharoor’s words, who was a special assistant to the UNDPKO chief Kofi Annan, and later wrote about the predicament that peacekeepers were faced with: The Security Council resolutions on the safe areas required the parties to treat them as “safe, ” imposed no obligations on their inhabitants and defenders, deployed United Nations troops in them but expected their mere presence to “deter attacks, ” carefully avoided asking the peacekeepers to “defend” or “protect” these areas, but authorized them to call in airpower “in self-defense”—a masterpiece of diplomatic drafting, but largely unimplementable as an operational directive.  In practice this meant that the local population, UN peacekeepers and other international presence “could only be fed, supplied and maintained through Serb territory and with Serb consent.”
Analysis of the events in Srebrenica
At the end of 1993 and at the beginning of 1994 there were more than 22,000 people in the town of Srebrenica, which was four times more as it was its original population. Another 20,000 people arrived to the surrounding villages. There was no work except for those employed by the UN or humanitarian organizations. Sources of earnings were prostitution, work in the black market and place. Running water was only available occasionally; the people were lacking food and were so completely dependent on the delivered assistance. The continuous fighting in 1993 led to the fact that the UN managed to satisfy only 57% of the actual humanitarian needs in Bosnia.
One of the UN civil affairs officer after a visit in Srebrenica market it as ‘one of the largest refugee camp in the world, and the poorest run one at that.’  People were dying of malnutrition, dehydration and diseases that would not have been normal in normal surroundings.
When the Bosnian Serbs overrun the Srebrenica,  they forgot all the human values and committed the atrocities that were not witnessed after the Second World War. In approximately five days, members of the Bosnian Serb Army under the leadership of General Krstić and Mladić systematically killed thousands of Muslim civilians and soldiers. The offensive to the city, which was guarded by a few UN peacekeepers, began on July 6, 1995. After the fall of the enclave, Serbian forces carried out, as already mentioned, the worst massacre in Europe since the Second World War.
Kofi Annan wrote in his report on Srebrenica:
‘The fall of Srebrenica is also shocking because the enclave’s inhabitants believed that the authority of the United Nations Security Council, the presence of UNPROFOR peacekeepers, and the might of NATO air power, would ensure their safety. Instead, the Bosnian Serb forces ignored the Security Council, pushed aside the UNPROFOR troops, and assessed correctly that air power would not be used to stop them. They overran the safe area of Srebrenica with ease, and then proceeded to depopulate the territory within 48 hours. Their leaders then engaged in high-level negotiations with representatives of the international community while their forces on the ground executed and buried thousands of men and boys within a matter of days.’
The Dutch United Nations Peacekeepers
The Dutch battalion also known by its military short term DUTCHBAT was deployed to the Srebrenica UN Safe Area to replace the Canadian battalion CANBAT II in February 1994. Like the rest of the UN peacekeepers, DUTCHBAT was under UNPROFOR command. It was formed out of the emerging Air Mobile Brigade of the Royal Netherlands Armed Forces to participate in the peacekeeping operation in former Yugoslavia. This was a first-ever brigade of this type “intended as a component of a NATO rapid-deployment force, but tailor-made for politically attractive peacekeeping operations.”  DUTCHBAT deployment in former Yugoslavia saw a total 72 of four tours DUTCHBAT I (February – July 1994), DUTCHBAT II (June 1994 – December 1994/January 1995), DUTCHBAT III (January 1995 – July 1995) and DUTCHBAT IV (July 1995 – November 1995) roughly deployed between February 1994 and November, 1995. According to multiple sources, each tour consisted of about 450 troops; although the lowest number was present during the fall of the enclave, when at that time there about 280 peacekeepers present (120 peacekeepers were prevented from returning to the enclave after their leave and were stranded in Zagreb for weeks).  The DUTCHBAT was assigned the role of safekeeping the UN Safe Area Srebrenica. In accordance with the UN mandate of UNPROFOR, the armament was personal weapons and machine guns. As previously stated in subchapter 1.4, the UNPROFOR was authorized to use force in self-defense in reply to attacks, and to coordinate with NATO in the use of air power in support of its activities. Soon after their arrival the Dutch UN peacekeepers (like the Canadians before them), with their limited strength, were incapable of implementing Resolution 819. Thus, both parties to the conflict violated the ‘safe area’ agreement and ceasefire that was mandated. The Bosniaks didn’t disarm and the Bosnian Serbs continued with the attacks. The Dutch “felt they could, in effect, do little more than watch, count, and log and report violations.”  At the end of May 1995, commander Karremans sent out a letter informing his UN superiors that he had not been re-supplied since February 18, 1995, his troops had 16 percent of the ammunition they needed, and he was unable to carry out his mission.  By early July 1995, there were just 429 Dutch soldiers left in the enclave. Only half of those were infantry, the rest support and medical troops.
Numerous questions still remain: Why did the Dutch government send its peacekeepers to Srebrenica? Should the Dutch, based on the Canadian experience, not have realized that the UN’s 819 resolution was something they could not implement? The spectrum of answers is wide, ranging from the genuine calls to help the people who the Dutch public had seen suffering on their TV screens to the more premeditated ones. While Madeleine Bunting, journalist for the Guardian, claims that “the naivety was evident across the entire Dutch political culture: parliament, the media and the country was swept along by a morally outraged public opinion.”  Others disagree; Phillip Corwin, the former chief UN political officer in Bosnia discussed these questions in his book called Dubious Mandate: A Memoir of the UN in Bosnia. In his opinion European states intervened in the war in former Yugoslavia to stop streams of IDPs from coming to their countries: “The interest was neither altruistic nor genuinely humanitarian. He claims humanitarian intervention was motivated by the domestic and racist concerns. He writes: “They cared little if one million Muslims, or Croats, or Serbs moved from one part of Former Yugoslavia to another part, no matter how catalytic that move might be, as long as those IDPs didn’t try to enter their countries.”  Regardless of how a person interprets the debate, it’s important to note that Yugoslav emigration did increasingly reduce after the UN intervention. Nonetheless, over four million people became displaced because of the war.
Period before the fall of Srebrenica: From 6th till 11th July 1995
Bosnian Serbs attacked Srebrenica on 6th July 1995 early in the morning. Following their usual pattern they repeated short spells of shelling on southern observation points (OP) so as to avoid provoking NATO air strikes. They wanted to give the impression that these were sporadic actions and they did not want to run out of their limited ammunition. After occupying Ops one by one initially from the south, they carefully advanced to Srebrenica town and thus triggered a wave of people’s departure to Potočari.
The Bosnian army within the enclave responded to the attack, but did not have enough arms compared to the Serbs and even what they had, was very weak. The new Bosnian army commander, Major Bećirović, asked the commander of the Dutchbat, Karemmans, to return all the weapons to the Bosnians, which they had to hand them over to them at the time of the demilitarization of Srebrenica. Karemmans refused, stating that ‘it was UNIPROFOR’s task to protect them and not theirs.  This was the first of many decisions that had tragic consequences.

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