Could the United Nations have prevented the Genocide at Srebrenica?
The United Nations involvement in the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict still raises controversy among historians. More widely known as the Bosnian Genocide, the Srebrenica Massacre was the systematic killing of approximately 8000 Muslim men after Serbian forces seized the town of Srebrenica in July 1995.
Click here to view a video that provides a brief overview of what happened at Srebrenica.
The popular misconception of Srebrenica is that the United Nations did nothing. The UN, as an organisation, did as much as it was able with the resources it was given. The reality of the situation was that the International Community sought a moral justice, but wanted it without getting their hands dirty. Critical to understanding the UN involvement in Srebrenica is the Report of the Secretary-General, A/54/549. The report gives detailed reasons and explanations of the UN involvement at Srebrenica. Below is not an exhaustive summary of the reasons that stopped UN involvement having any chance of success, but it gives an indication of why the UN could do little to stop the Serbian war aims.
Lack of support from the International Community:
Historian Jan Honig, in her paper on The Srebrenica Crisis, argues that the international community struggled to justify involvement and provisions for aid in the conflict because it did not pose a threat to their individual national interests. This attitude meant that there was little support to the UN in provision of resources. The reluctance and refusal of the international community meant that the genocide met little to no opposition.
Treating Srebrenica like a peacekeeping operation was inherently flawed:
The UN made decisions based on classifying the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina as one of peacekeeping. The area was in a state of warfare, which meant that there was no peace to preserve. As a result, the Dutch battalion stationed in Srebrenica walked a fine line between ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘peace-enforcing.’ This created confusion, for the Dutch battalion in discerning what was appropriate action when dealing with the invading Serbian Army.
Making Srebrenica into a ‘safe-area’:
The creation of the ‘safe-area’ policy was another bid by the UN to do something for civilians in the area. However, this seemed to only give the Serbian Army the upper hand. The ‘safe-area’ mandate called for the demilitarization of the area. This meant that the Bosnians ended up being unarmed whilst surrounded by armed Serb forces. Another flaw with the mandate was that the Serbs never agreed to the policy. Without support of all parties involved the mandate was set for disaster. Historian Honig also argued that the ‘safe-area’ mandate was a bid for the international community to avoid being dragged into the conflict.
The United Nations, United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) did not have a hierarchy for decision-making:
The UN had requested that air support be used for the protection of the ‘safe-areas.’ The NATO air power was supposed to act as a support to the ‘safe-areas’ if they came under attack, however, the reluctance coupled with miscommunications resulted in very little and ineffective air support as the enclave became overrun in the early days of July, 1995. Lieutenant-General Hans Couzy, who was the Dutch Commander-in-Chief, argued that the UN did not make effective decisions and did not provide clear objectives in relation to the situation in Srebrenica as recorded by Christian Klep in Peace Operations between Peace and War.
Failed to fully realise the aims of the Serbian Army:
Lieutenant Commander Karremans had believed that when the attacks began they were merely to gain control of critical areas around the enclave and did not believe this constituted as an attack on Srebrenica itself. The U.N had no knowledge of the Serb offensive in advance according to Masten in his paper on Peacekeeping Missions of the 1990s. The belief was that aggression was not a ‘final act’ for the Srebrenica but rather an attempt to reduce the size of the enclave (Honig). Once the Serbian Army had taken over Srebrenica the peacekeepers began evacuating civilians. The Serbians only wanted the territory and not its people and made an allowance for the systematic separation of men. The subsequent massacre of these men indicated that the aims of the Serbs went much further than just the capturing of territory.
In summary, the fundamental error made by the UN involved making resolutions without the complete support of the international community. The presence of the UNPROFOR was crippled because they lacked a unified and concise decision-making process in conjunction with the UN and NATO any decisions were based on an ambiguity surrounding the action of self-defense as related to being interpreted as peace enforcing. The international community failed to provide support. As individual nations vested interests were not threatened. Without the resources and support from the UN member states, there could be no foolproof implementation of any means that could provide successful protection and humanitarian aid to the civilian population of Srebrenica.