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Bosnia: UN Failure To Save Srebrenica Examined

  • Robert McMahon

The UN's failure to save the lives of thousands of Bosnian men killed in the designated "safe haven" of Srebrenica five years ago has undergone fresh scrutiny. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports on a symposium that retraces the fateful event and looks at how Bosnia can move toward reconciliation.

United Nations, 12 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations released a report last autumn detailing events that led to the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica five years ago and acknowledging its own responsibility.

Diplomats and human rights activists have called it an extraordinary report for daring to examine the UN's own failings. The key lesson learned, the report says, is that any systematic attempt to terrorize or murder an entire people must be countered by all necessary means.

The report came under new scrutiny on Tuesday at a daylong symposium sponsored by the Bosnian UN mission. Panelists praised the scope of the report as well as a subsequent report on the Rwanda genocide. But there was also widespread concern about the will of Security Council members to seek justice for the killings in Srebrenica.

More than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims are believed to have died after Bosnian Serb forces overran Srebrenica on 11 July 1995. The town had been designated a safe haven, but the small contingent of Dutch peacekeeping forces stationed there offered little resistance after its requests for help were denied.

Panelist David Harland, author of the UN report on Srebrenica, told the symposium his research found that the Dutch forces had requested intervention by air forces at least five times before the enclave was overrun, but they were turned down by their superior, French General Bernard Janvier.

Harland said Janvier had told him in a later interview that he did not consider air power effective in the terrain near Srebrenica. Janvier also told him the Dutch force was under orders to mount a more vigorous defense of Srebrenica. The failure of the UN force to engage the Bosnian Serb forces more effectively, especially via air power, Harland said, is ultimately the fault of its command structure.

"There is, at least in my view, a prima facie case for saying that the failure to use air power did, in fact, contribute very largely to the fall of Srebrenica and the massacre that followed," he said.

Harland said confusing signals from the UN Security Council on when to use military force also contributed to the failure to protect the haven. In general, he said, UN declarations about saving lives were not supported in crucial moments by the Secretariat and Security Council.

"Many of the calamities that happened in Srebrenica were, in my view, a result of people having overcommitted themselves. One of the absolute key lessons for me is one both for the Secretariat and for the Security Council, which is that you do more harm than good when you claim to do something that you really have not the slightest intention of doing," Harland said.

Another panelist, professor Paul Williams of American University, said the fall of Srebrenica was more by design than accident. He said a policy of "coercive appeasement" was employed by the UN Secretariat and followed by some of the world powers. The aim, he said, was to allow Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia who orchestrated Bosnian Serb actions, to reach limited objectives as a way of ensuring his agreement to a final peace accord.

He said examples of this appeasement include minimizing the use of force by peacekeepers and minimizing the role of international justice by seeking to delay and weaken the war crimes tribunal.

"The UN-initiated approach of coercive appeasement greatly contributed to the encouragement of Mr. Milosevic and his national forces and clearly paved the way for the Srebrenica massacre," Williams said.

A majority of other panelists disagreed, saying there was no clear intent by UN leaders to bring about Srebrenica's downfall. But some said there appeared to be tacit agreement to let the enclave be overrun.

Five years later, the bodies of only one-third of the estimated victims have been recovered, and only a small portion of those has been identified.

The International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has indicted three Bosnian Serbs in connection with the genocide but just one of them -- General Radislav Krstic -- has been arrested.

Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, the former president of the tribunal, told the symposium she was frustrated by the failure to apprehend Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, the other two indicted by the court.

She said the tribunal's work is important to help establish a historical record of the atrocities committed during the Bosnian war and guard against revisionism. She said it is important for the citizens of Bosnia to be aware that the trials focus on the actions of individuals and do not seek to prosecute whole ethnic groups.

"What's important is that we focus on individuals who commit crimes and to avoid this group castigation, retribution, and a continuation of this cycle," Kirk McDonald said.

She said that by putting international humanitarian law into practice, the tribunal also helps to provide reconciliation and eventually a lasting peace.
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