Monday, May 20, 2013
- The United Nations, in a damning report on the massacre of thousands of Bosnian civilians in Srebrenica in 1995, blames itself for not forcefully confronting the Serb forces laying siege to the city at the time.
“Through error, misjudgment, and an inability to recognize the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder,” says a 155-page report from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was in charge of all peacekeeping operations at the time.
“I am fully cognizant of the mandate entrusted to the United Nations and only too painfully aware of the Organization’s failures in implementing that mandate,” Annan says in the report.
The report documents the events before and after the slaughter of as many as 7,000 Muslim men and boys at the “safe haven” of Srebrenica and concludes that air strikes and a fighting force should have been used much sooner in Bosnia.
“The cardinal lesson of Srebrenica is that a deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorize, expel or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means,” Annan says in the report.
The 155-page document spreads responsibility for the tragedy on a variety of actors – then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, his Special Representative Yasushi Akashi, the UN secretariat, the UN Security Council and member states.
It says the Bosnian Serb leaders behind the massacre, President Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, both now indicted for war crimes, bear “the primary and most direct responsibility” for the massacre that left thousand men and boys dead.
The Security Council established six “safe areas” in Bosnia in April 1993, declaring that they should be disarmed and not attacked while being guarded by the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR).
The next month, UNPROFOR collected the weapons of the Bosnian Muslims in the city, but Serb forces ignored demands to withdraw from positions around Srebrenica.
On July 6, 1995, the Serbs began an assault on the enclave that ended on July 11 with the Serbian occupation of the city. Within days, 7,000 men and boys were separated from the general population and mass executions began on July 14.
Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey of Bosnia-Herzegovina called the report “pretty comprehensive” and a “good way to learn lessons for the future, and in that way it is an almost self-evident map of how and how not to do this in the future.”
In his view, the primary blame fell on “those in the chain of command who had the chance to take resolute measures but avoided any step that would confront Mladic”
Sacirbey made particular mention of Akashi and the UNPROFOR Commander General Bernard Janvier.
“The most important lesson,” says Sacirbey, is that “bureaucracy, caution, and foot-dragging are not very good responses to an army committed to genocide and murder.”
The report revisits the fateful decisions made by UN officials and others including:
- the failure to call in NATO air strikes to defend the city.
- the small number of troops deployed to defend Srebrenica and the other “safe areas.”
- the refusal of the Dutch battalion stationed in the city to return Serb fire.
- the refusal to allow the Bosnian Muslim residents of the city to retrieve their weapons to defend Srebrenica once the Serbs marched on the city.
The failure to use air power against the attacking Serbs has long been a key criticism of the UN role in Srebrenica.
The Dutch commander repeatedly requested NATO air support, but the requests were refused by Boutros-Ghali, his senior advisors (including Annan), the Special Representative and the Force commander because they felt such force was not in the Security Council mandate and they feared Serb reprisals against peacekeepers.
Despite the fact that the UN “was fully aware that the threat of NATO air power was all we had at our disposal to respond to an attack on the safe areas,” requests for air strikes were never forwarded to NATO, Annan acknowledges.
The report points out that the Dutch battalion of 150 were “lightly armed and in indefensible positions” facing 2,000 Serbs armed with armor and artillery.
“It is not possible to say with any certainty that stronger actions by the Dutch would have saved lives, and it is even possible that such efforts could have done more harm than good,” the report says.
The study labels as “particularly ill-advised” the decision to deny Bosnians’ the return of their weapons turned in in 1993. The report quotes one commander saying, “it was our responsibility to defend the enclave, not theirs.”
A senior UN official told reporters Monday that the “cardinal lesson” of the fall of Srebrenica is that “a deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorize, expel or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means.”
Reflecting on the UN’s attempts at neutrality, he said, “We should not have treated all parties as equally innocent or guilty.”
Commenting on the document, Joanna Weschler, UN representative for Human Rights Watch, says it “is not a pro forma report, a big effort went into producing it.”
However, she adds “I don’t see it putting responsibility on any individual…It is objectionable that responsibility is placed on set of circumstances. Not everything was accidental, some things were the result of specific policy.”
The report, requested a year ago by the UN General Assembly, dreaws on 100 interviews and confidential UN files. Only some 2,200 bodies have been found since the massacre and the International Red Cross lists about 7,300 people from Srebrenica as “missing.”