The sound of mass murder in war is not the howling of machine-guns or popping of side arms. The real sound of an act of genocide, the sound of Srebrenica that I heard years ago was the dull, low moaning of ten thousand and more living victims of genocide – all the mothers, the sisters and daughters of the murdered 8000 boys and men.
How could we – all of us in the UN at the time – have been so foolish as not to anticipate their murder? How could we have made so many mistakes? And still today not properly understand them, nor even have taken the right corrective measures to avoid their repetition.
One week ago, The Hague Institute for Global Justice and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum organized a discussion that brought together, for the first time, many of the key officials connected to the events 20 years ago in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and especially Srebrenica. They included three former permanent representatives from the Security Council at the time, all of who played pivotal roles, the former SRSG of UNPROFOR/UNPF, the former UNPROFOR Commander in 1995, the UNPROFOR Chief of Staff, the Dutchbat Commander in Srebrenica, the Dutchbat Company 3 Commander, the former Dutch Prime Minister, and the former Dutch Defence Minister, the former EU Special Envoy, the former Special Assistant to the Head of Peacekeeping in New York, the UN official in Tuzla who uncovered the truth in 1995, the former UN head of Sector Sarajevo and later author of the Srebrenica report, the journalist who first broke the story at the time, former senior representatives of the Bosnian government, a representative of Republika Srepska close to the former Bosnian Serb leadership, former officials and diplomats from several countries – and, most importantly, a survivor who recalled vividly his experiences for us.
Our task was to piece together in detail what happened from the formation of UNPROFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992 to the fall of Srebrenica and the mass murder that ensued – with the help of recently declassified documents, as well as materials from the relevant trials at the ICTY.
Allow me to briefly narrate some of the key events.
Early in 1993, the Bosnian Deputy Prime Minister Hakija Turajlic was shot and killed by Bosnian Serb soldiers at a check-point outside Sarajevo, while riding in a UN armoured personnel carrier. The UN watched the killing haplessly. In one sudden, bloody stroke, it lost the respect of both sides to the conflict.
When General Morillon placed Srebrenica “under the protection of the UN” two months later, this restored some credibility to the force. But is also showed UNPROFOR to be operating in its own orbit, unguided by New York. Resolution 836 (1993) subsequently gave UNPROFOR that guidance, and some leverage too, by providing a stick – i.e., “the authority to take the necessary measures, including use of force [NATO airpower] in reply to bombardments against the [six] Safe Areas.” This stick was used successfully used in February 1994, when the UN used the threat of NATO airpower to oblige the Serbs to cease their pounding of Sarajevo.
And yet this stick was then dropped by UNPROFOR during the Gorazde crisis in April 1994, when the UN Secretary-General, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the SRSG and the UNPROFOR Commander in Bosnia and Herzegovina, General Michael Rose, were not eager to use the threat of force, and settled only for Close Air Support (a limited action solely in defense of the UN). They were concerned by the apparent contradiction of having blue-helmeted troops take sides in a conflict. Yet by not taking sides – when the conflict was so obviously one-sided, with an aggressor and a clear victim – the UN appeared to many to be doing just that: siding with the aggressor. The UN’s hesitation to use NATO airpower meant the Bosnian Serb leadership could push on an open door.
Whenever in 1994 UNPROFOR came under attack in one of the six designated Safe Areas, and requested Close Air Support from NATO – leading to what was described as “pinprick” attacks – the Bosnian Serb leadership took UN personnel as hostages. This caused even more vacillation in the UN, prompting the Bosnian Serb leadership to exert ever greater levels of pressure. The UN simply became reactive, especially after the collapse of the Vance-Owen Plan in 1993.
Only on 24 and 25 May 1995 did this change. Following the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the UN weapons collection sites around Sarajevo, a new UNPROFOR Commander, more disposed to the use of airpower, warned both sides to return their weapons. The Bosnian Serbs were slow to comply and air strikes, as opposed to Close Air Support, were ordered. The next day, the Bosnian Serbs bombed Tuzla, leading to a second set of NATO air strikes on Bosnian Serb targets. This prompted, in turn, the taking of some 400 UN Peacekeepers hostage. Soon after, the US, together with the UK and France decided to suspend the use of airstrikes.
The stage was set for Srebrenica.
Earlier, on 8 March, Radovan Karadzic had approved his Directive 7, ordering the Bosnian Serb Army to squeeze the eastern enclaves, including Srebrenica, to “create an unbearable situation … with no hope of survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica and Zepa”. Together with this “pause” in the use of airstrikes coming into being in the first days of June, a door clicked open, and the hand of Ratko Mladic swung towards it.
On the 3 June, the Bosnian Serbs attacked Observation Post Echo on the edge of the Srebrenica Safe Area, found little resistance and took over the post. It was the litmus test for what was to come. The following day, on 4 June, Ratko Mladic met with the overall UN Commander, General Bernard Janvier, and came away with the impression the UN would not use NATO airpower so long as the Bosnian Serbs refrained from threatening UN personnel.
One month later, as the Bosnian Serb Army advanced on Srebrenica from the South-East, there were two requests for Close Air Support from Dutchbat, on the 6th and the 8th July respectively. Both of them were denied, even though resolution 836 (1993) had been clearly violated. When Mladic saw there was minimal resistance, he decided on the 9th to take the town. On the 10th, the Dutch set up a blocking position which, if overrun, the UN warned, would trigger a NATO response. But when General Janvier spoke to General Tolimir on the evening of the 10th to demand that the Bosnian Serb soldiers immediately halt their firing, Janvier telegraphed, in his choice of words, his reluctance to use air power.
On the 11th, NATO aircraft were flying over Srebrenica from 6am, ready to pounce, but there was no request from General Janvier. Only after the Bosnian Serbs began to actually overrun the UN blocking position at 11am, did Janvier present his request to SRSG Akashi who approved it – but there was a condition attached to the order: airpower could only be used against the actual weapons system firing on the UN blocking position. So not only was it all too late, but also too little. The Safe Area was seized.
On the night of the 11th, Ratko Mladic began the process of transforming that military victory into a crime on a scale not seen in Europe since 1945. It was, apparently, on that night that he took the decision to execute the 1000 boys and men gathered in Potocari. The mass executions began on the 13th. Realising that they had been undetected by the UN, the killers continued their work until over 8000 hors de combat boys and men were dead.
In the years since then, while many of us have been haunted by these events, there was never a proper discussion about them at the UN, beyond one perfunctory debate in the General Assembly in 1999. That UNPROFOR had a clumsy mandate in the beginning was abundantly clear, and it was obvious that two cultures, the UN and NATO, operated together with some confusion. Still, those boys and men may well have lived had the UNPROFOR Chief of Staff in Sarajevo actually approved the request for Close Air Support; or had the UN used Air Strikes in line with Resolution 836 (1993) on the 3rd June, when the attack on Observation Post Echo took place; or on the 6th July, when the advance against Srebrenica began; or on the 8th – or if General Janvier had approved them on the 10th, or early on the morning of the 11th.
And the deeper lessons for the UN are as relevant today as they were twenty years ago. Our inability to anticipate events, so prevalent then, is still with us today; and our recurrent failure to understand with whom, and with what, we are dealing. Even after the events earlier in the war, in Kljuc, Kotor Varos, Prijedor, Sanski Most, none of us believed that Mladic could be so brazen as to commit genocide, when the UN was there, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in great numbers. We got it wrong, so wrong -- although the people of Srebrenica knew full well who they were confronted with and what was in store for them. We simply had not stopped to think about these issues in sufficient depth. Perhaps we could say the same thing about the international community’s approach to the political crisis in July 2013 in Juba, given what unfolded subsequently in South Sudan. All too often, in UNPROFOR, we lurched, almost mindlessly, from crisis to crisis, and still today the UN seems to skate over the surface of many of the conflicts on its agenda.
Moreover, UNPROFOR feared the Bosnian Serbs. We in UNPROFOR did not even allow for the possibility they could also have feared – or learned to fear – us. We were often timid, and readily communicated this impression. The most foundational lesson of Srebrenica was this: to succeed, the UN must be respected. For the UN to be effective in robust peacekeeping, all the parties to the conflict, and in particular the aggressor, must take the measure of this Council, its decisions and the UN presence on the ground. They must believe there will be serious consequences, and no impunity.
We also too often crossed the line from needing to understand the grievances of the oppressor, to then almost showing sympathy with them – and this, to me, was, and is, exceedingly dangerous.
More alarmingly, we perceived the complexity of the political scene but then made the mistake of believing what was complicated politically must also be complicated morally. It was not. That all sides committed crimes was true, but this did not mean all sides were equally guilty, not when scale and proportion were factored in. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the moral picture was actually very straight-forward, for anyone who wanted to see it.
General Rupert Smith, the single most influential UN Commander, who brought the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina to an end in 1995, today argues persuasively that Commanders of UN operations must command, and others must do the negotiating. If not, when they are faced with an assault on their mandate or personnel, or on civilians, the Commanders, or the SRSG, will have nothing to offer in negotiations except the mission itself.
Again, so long as there is no respect for the UN, it will be likely that further massacres will be perpetrated. At the very least, if the UN is to make good on its commitment to protect civilians, it must be resolute, undivided and clear about its intention. Had this been the case with Sri Lanka in 2009 – or now, in Sudan, Syria, Central African Republic or even Burundi and Myanmar – the consequences for the lives of millions of people would be immense.
I also believe that it is clear from the 1999 Srebrenica report that the Safe Area concept can work, but only if implemented properly. I believe it should be examined very thoroughly for possible application in some of today’s crises where the acute suffering of innocent people reminds us of the thousands of families weeping, hauntingly, for the men and boys of Srebrenica whom they would never see again.
Srebrenica was a catastrophe for its inhabitants and refugees huddled there on 11 July 1995, and also for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and for the UN. It is a trauma from which we could still learn, with great remorse. For many of us who served with the UN in the former Yugoslavia, Srebrenica will remain for many years the heart that breaks daily.