Accessibility links

Breaking News

Bosnia-Herzegovina: Coming To Grips With The UN's Failure At Srebrenica

As part of the United Nations commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica, a group of panelists discussed in New York yesterday the chain of grave mistakes that led to the worst mass killings in Europe since the end of the World War II. Ignorance, slow action, and erroneous political calculations, the panelists said, gave Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces in July 1995 the opportunity to slay over 7,000 Muslim men and boys after they took over the town designated by the UN Security Council as a "safe area." The massacre in Srebrenica is widely considered a major fiasco in UN peacekeeping efforts.

United Nations, 8 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Diego Arria, former Venezuelan Ambassador to the UN and a member of the UN Security Council during the fateful events in Srebrenica, said that even now, 10 years after the massacre, he continues to feel like an accomplice to the killings.

“Today, walking here I felt like a witness to a crime, [one] must feel when they return to a place where largely crime was committed, in the [UN headquarters] building. So it is very uneasy personal feeling because I was part of the Security Council that actually looked the other way and assumed the responsibility for the death of thousands of people. The mayor of Srebrenica was holding on me and said 'Now we have the hope that the world is going to help us.' And the world looked the other way,” Arria said.

Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein of Jordan was a UN official in Zagreb with responsibilities tied to Srebrenica. He says that Bosnian Serb leaders at the time were constantly testing UN and NATO’s forces threshold of tolerance. Those leaders include indicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who are still at large.

Regrettably, Prince Zeid says, the UN and NATO attitude toward Bosnian Serbs’ aggression was rather sheepish.

“I think most of us began to perceive that our repeated resort to the threats of the use of close air-support or air-strikes started to resemble toothless tiger. Every time we would employ the threat and this was something that was borne out in the Srebrenica report, the [UN] secretary-general report on Srebrenica, we never made complete use of the threat. We would threaten the Bosnian Serbs with air strikes, the air strikes would be carried out, and then we would go to great lengths to explain to the Bosnian Serbs that we were forced to do this as an action of last resort, we didn’t really mean to hurt them,” Zeid said.

Panel participants said that Srebrenica’s bloody example taught the global community an important lesson on the need to respond resolutely to systematic attempts to terrorize, expel or murder an entire people. But they also noted that the UN fell short in its analysis for the failure in Srebrenica.

“There has never been a discussion in the UN on this issue. When the report of the Secretary General was produced there was a perfunctory discussion of it or rather there was series of statements in the [UN] General Assembly and that was it, we put it to rest. We’ve never had a thorough discussion on the conclusions reached on the assessment of the Srebrenica report. And are we liable to commit the same mistakes and errors when faced with complex situations like this in the future? I think absolutely [yes],” Zeid said.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stressed in his 1999 report on the fall of Srebrenica that the international community as a whole must accept its share of responsibility for the ethnic cleansing campaign that culminated in the murder of some 7,000 unarmed civilians in Srebrenica.

Professor Samantha Power of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of Harvard University was a journalist in Yugoslavia during the time of Srebrenica events. She spoke about the unwillingness of the great powers to admit their share of responsibility for what happened.

“Srebrenica, I think, really underscores [that] there is such a huge margin of error in the margin of autonomy that the UN Secretariat has. So that’s the one UN. The other UN is the [member] states. We have [U.S.] congressional investigations but how many now on ‘oil-for-food’ [corruption]? How many investigations we are going to have on the sexual scandals with the UN peacekeepers? Why do we have investigations on those scandals and not on Srebrenica and Rwanda within the U.S. Congress? [It is] because we were involved through the UN Security Council and why on earth would we want to look back on our complicities?” Power said.

Dr. Mirza Kusljugic is the current Bosnia-Herzegovina representative at the UN. He was in Bosnia during the 1992-1995 war and spoke about the hopelessness that took over in the final months of the war.

“I really felt hopeless for the first time at the end of the war. I felt betrayed and the people of Bosnia understood basically what was going on. The Srebrenica was the final stage and the lack of will to stop the aggression and to prevent genocide against “Bosniaks” [the Muslim population of Bosnia] and against Bosnian state was basically the reason why Srebrenica happened,” Kusljugic said.

On 11 July, EU leaders will assemble in Srebrenica for a memorial service to honor the victims.

Related Stories:

The Film That Shook Belgrade

Belgrade's Ambiguous Response To Srebrenica

Ten Years After Srebrenica

Srebrenica Timeline