The mission as they knew it was over. As the promised air support never materialized and the Bosnian Serbs completed their conquest of the town, new orders came for the Dutch peacekeepers charged with protecting Srebrenica: do not resist the Serbs, do not expose yourselves to any risks, and do what you can to oversee the safe evacuation of refugees. Testifying at the genocide trial of Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstic in April, Captain Ron Rutten of the Dutch army described his comrades cordoning off an area filled with Bosnian Muslim refugees and then directing them toward an empty bus while a group of Bosnian Serb fighters sat nearby. A judge asked Rutten's superior, Major Robert Franken, if what was being organized was a deportation rather than an evacuation. Franken meekly conceded this, but the judge did not relent. "So, it was a planned deportation approved by the UN." Franken again agreed. The judge did not press him further, but the admission was clear. The peacekeepers had not only failed to prevent ethnic cleansing, but they had actually assisted it.
Power and Failure
In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces overran the town of Srebrenica and began a week-long systematic slaughter of over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. A haven for Muslim refugees fleeing from advancing Serb armies, Srebrenica had long been targeted for Serb attack, and in April 1993, the United Nations designated the town as its first ever "safe area." In January 1995, a lightly armed Dutch battalion was charged with Srebrenica's defense. But throughout the spring of 1995, the Bosnian Serbs tightened their stranglehold over the town, and against a Serbian force of 1,000 men backed by tanks and artillery, the 350 Dutch troops found themselves helpless to prevent the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.
Committed at the midpoint of a decade marked by genocide and ethnic cleansing, the massacre at Srebrenica has come to symbolize the combination of parochial cruelty and cosmopolitan indifference that lay at the heart of many of the last decade's mass human tragedies. The slaughter unfolded in real time on CNN, a worldwide depiction of a moment when the entire international community stood by and watched.
Apart from its scale, efficiency, and cruelty, what is most striking about the fall of the safe haven is the fact that it happened at all. The international response to the Bosnian Serb Army's assault was truly a farce of superlatives: the pledges of the world's most powerful nations, the availability of NATO attack planes, and the presence of several hundred troops from one of the world's most advanced and liberal nations (the Netherlands) all failed to prevent the debacle. After the callous indifference shown during the Rwandan genocide and numerous other wars, it becomes even more disheartening to see that in the one situation (before the Kosovo war) where the West seemed to take a stand against mass atrocity, it failed miserably.
Defenders of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion (Dutchbat) at Srebrenica rightly point out that the soldiers had no chance of defending the town against the larger, better-armed force of Bosnian Serbs. The report on the Srebrenica massacre issued by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan clearly shows that Dutchbat's requests for NATO air support were repeatedly denied by UN bureaucrats, themselves beholden to ridiculous policies promulgated by the Western powers. Should the top men indicted for the massacre, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, ever be arrested and brought before the UN war-crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, their testimony would shed some biased but not altogether untrue light on just how deep the complicity of the international community runs.
The story of how thousands of Bosnian Muslims were concentrated, disarmed, and then betrayed at Srebrenica is a textbook case of buck-passing all the way down to the victim. The Western powers, unwilling to do more than give the illusion of deliberate action to end the war, created the ill-conceived "safe areas" where thousands of Bosnian Muslims, many from the countryside, sought refuge. They gave the United Nations the ambitious task of defending the "safe areas" without the resources, legal mandate, or will to enforce it. The international civil servants of the UN Secretariat, fully conscious of their own potential as scapegoats, sought the strictest possible interpretation of their already narrow mandate to avoid the embarrassment of "another Somalia." And the peacekeepers themselves, denied air support by UN bureaucrats and turned into human shields by the Bosnian Serbs, were more interested in leaving the enclave alive than in protecting civilians. But it is the Western powers, who placed the bureaucrats of the United Nations and the Dutch peacekeepers in a situation they could not possibly resolve, who bear primary responsibility for the betrayal of Srebrenica.
While failure to protect Srebrenica has been seen as a microcosm for the West's failure in Bosnia in general, it also provides important lessons for the present. After several years of post-Bosnia remission, the international community has recently been plunged into several high-profile peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, East Timor, and Sierra Leone. Anyone who wishes to declare these victories for the forces of humanitarian interventionism, however, should recall how power politics sacrificed not only the people of Srebrenica, but also the peacekeepers and UN bureaucrats who were themselves never free from politics. The experience of Srebrenica may be a footnote in understanding what unfolded in the former Yugoslavia this decade, but proponents of a strong and ethical interventionism based on multilateral institutions must learn from the experiences of those international actors at Srebrenica who seemed the least political, the most principled, and the most tragic.
All Too Principled?
International bureaucrats in the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) for Yugoslavia as well as at UN headquarters in New York played an important role in allowing the Serbs to overrun Srebrenica with impunity, because the West needed the United Nations to conceal its own lack of a concrete Bosnia policy. The permanent members of the Security Council were mainly interested in limiting UN involvement in Bosnia. Resolution 836 designated Srebrenica a "safe area" and empowered UNPROFOR troops only to deter, rather than actually repel, attacks on safe areas. NATO air power could be called in only to "support" the peacekeepers. Protection of Bosnian civilians was no one's responsibility.
It is clear that key UN officials-including Yasushi Akashi, special representative of the Secretary-General for the former Yugoslavia, and General Bernard Janvier, overall commander of UNPROFOR-were extremely reluctant to use air power against the Bosnian Serbs, even within the narrow criteria set by the Security Council. Instead of agitating for greater latitude or capitalizing on their narrow opportunities for action, Akashi and Janvier refused to approve nearly every Dutchbat request for air support. Their actions question the conception of international civil servants as disinterested actors who implement directives imposed by member states according to the principles of the UN. They are individuals with their own interests, and those interests contributed to the failure at Srebrenica.
In the spring of 1995, after a UN-ordered NATO bombing run, the Bosnian Serb Army seized several hundred peacekeepers all over Bosnia as human shields to discourage further bombing. Sensing that there was little political will in the West to stand up to the Serbs, Janvier made a fateful decision. In negotiating for the release of the peacekeepers, he privately assured top Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic that there would be no further air attacks. There is no evidence to suggest that Janvier had the authority to make such a promise, which effectively abrogated the Security Council's own resolutions on protecting safe areas.
As the Bosnian Serb Army slowly encircled and overran Srebrenica several months later, numerous requests for air support from the Dutch soldiers were rejected by Janvier and Akashi, even though the conditions under the mandate for using air power had technically been satisfied. These decisions were based on interpretations made by UN officials, not governments. In one instance, according to a UN report, air strikes were denied because it appeared that the Bosnian Serbs "did not intend to overrun the entire enclave," but merely to seize part of it; the Security Council's mandate, however, called for any attacks on safe areas to be deterred by peacekepeers. After several more requests from the peacekeepers, UNPROFOR finally sent NATO planes swooping down on Srebrenica; they damaged just one Bosnian Serb tank before the town was completely overrun.
The attack provoked Mladic into threatening to kill the peacekeepers he had already captured at Srebrenica. While a panicked phone call from the Dutch Ministry of Defence definitively prevented any future use of air power, the abandonment of Srebrenica cannot be attributed solely to the actions of member states. By consciously employing a narrow interpretation of their mandate, UN officials created the conditions under which it was impossible to employ air power effectively against Mladic's troops.
Rather than acting to carry out their mission, Janvier, Akashi, and others were trying to undermine it. Before the pinprick airstrike, Janvier and Akashi argued that the use of air power would not be the best interpretation of the mandate; afterwards, the all-important mandate was subordinated to the safety of the Dutch troops. In either case, the goal was to avoid the use of force at all costs, no matter how high.
Between carrying out the mandate handed down by the Security Council, avoiding confrontation with the Bosnian Serbs, and safeguarding the organization's own credibility, the fates of the displaced people at Srebrenica were rarely and barely a concern for the international civil servants of the United Nations. As Akashi's assistant reportedly said at a meeting with Janvier at the height of the attack on the enclave, "There's no choice [about using air power] if [the Dutch] troops are under attack....If they're not under attack, it's different. Then the question is, "How much shelling can civilians stand?"
Peacekeepers' Alternate Selves
One of the cornerstones of a liberal international order is an international peacekeeping force that can prevent, control, and end armed conflicts. Proponents of such a vision, however, must face the unpleasant reality of the Srebrenica massacre-an incident in which the myth of blue-helmeted, neutral-yet-principled peacekeepers bravely interposing between warring sides quickly faded away. To this day, the shame and repeated calls for an inquiry in the Netherlands have only underscored the fact that despite the impossibility of their situation, the idea of laying down their lives to protect others, no matter how idealistic, never seemed to enter the minds of the Dutch peacekeepers at Srebrenica. Moreover, even as Bosnian civilians were literally dragged from sight before "disappearing" to the sound of gunfire, the peacekeepers became instruments of ethnic cleansing, assisting in the "safe evacuation" of refugees, including the 8,000 men and boys who soon "disappeared."
It is interesting to note that Dutchbat consisted entirely of volunteers and enjoyed the full backing of its government; each decision to send troops to Bosnia was unanimously approved in the Dutch parliament. Not only was peacekeeping popular in the Netherlands, but polls showed that a majority of the Dutch public actually favored "peace enforcement," or robust and decisive military action, against the Bosnian Serbs. According to several accounts, many of the troops at Srebrenica saw great value in their work. They were described by journalists as genuinely wanting to help the people of Bosnia, and one even allegedly begged her captain to allow her to stay when her tour of duty ended in January 1995.
After several months of duty in the enclave, the high spirits began to sink. The Bosnian Serb forces restricted the flow of supplies and humanitarian aid and prevented soldiers who had left the area from returning. At the time of the final assault, the battalion was only at half-strength. Intermittent sniper fire from both sides made working conditions even more difficult. Tensions with the local population worsened to the point where a peacekeeper who had been ordered to abandon his post in the face of a Serb advance was killed by a Bosnian Muslim soldier in an attempt to force him to return to his position. These incidents heightened the sense among the Dutchbat troops that they were caught between two equally repugnant armies, neither better than the other.
As the Bosnian Serb attack increased in intensity and repeated requests for NATO air strikes were denied at higher levels, the peacekeepers became increasingly despondent and panicked. They lacked the manpower and the weapons to fight off a coordinated attack and began to see themselves not as soldiers but as cannon fodder. According to an account in the London Independent, one peacekeeper described the situation as "real war," adding that he had "never expected to be in the middle of that"-even after the peacekeepers had been in a war zone for several months.
After the initial shock of entering a combat situation, three things generally preserve the military chain of command and prevent soldiers from abandoning post: ideology, fear of shame or punishment, and loyalty to one's comrades. The collapse of all three factors may explain the Dutchbat troops' actions at Srebrenica.
The peacekeepers of Dutchbat had no strong ideological reasons to defend Srebrenica or the displaced people seeking shelter there. In a world of nation-states, where every human being is theoretically classified as the member of one country or another, peacekeepers are an aberration. Political theorist Michael Walzer notes that soldiers in the modern era have had their lives nationalized by the state; it is not clear, however, that peacekeepers' lives have been similarly "internationalized." If one of the guiding principles of peacekeeping is to ensure partiality by placing troops in an area where they have no personal or national interest, can one reasonably expect them to identify with the civilians they are supposed to protect? As journalist David Rohde wrote, the Dutchbat troops "had come to Bosnia to be peacekeepers, not to die in someone else's war."
As for the threat of punishment or loyalty to one's comrades, neither had the typical effect, as the soldiers were ordered to put their own safety ahead of the safety of the civilians in the enclave. Not only would there be no sanction for abandoning Srebrenica, but attempting to protect civilians could actually constitute insubordination or even disloyalty. According to Jan Honig and Norbert Both's Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, a Dutchbat soldier was accompanying Bosnian civilians fleeing the town when his sergeant pulled him inside their armored vehicle. The peacekeeper recalled: "That wasn't really allowed. Our physical presence on the road...was meant to protect the people. But the sergeant pulled us in [and said]: 'First you lot in safety.'"
After the Bosnian Serb Army overran the enclave, the immediate danger to UN peacekeepers diminished, as their bluff of air strikes had already been called. The peacekeepers were then charged by UNPROFOR commanders with monitoring the evacuation of civilians from the area, but they proved unable to carry out that task. Over the next 48 hours, Dutch troops and Bosnian Serb fighters played cat-and-mouse games, as the Serbs stymied peacekeepers' attempts to follow buses full of deportees. Many of these vehicles were full of civilians later massacred by Mladic's troops.
Some of the peacekeepers struggled in vain to monitor the safety of the Bosnian Muslim civilians and to avoid confrontation with the Serbs simultaneously. Their immediate preoccupation with survival was soon replaced by a sense of impotence, of being mere spectators to the events around them. As the situation worsened, the peacekeepers' identities as soldiers receded, reducing many of them to little more than teenagers with flak jackets, out of place in a strange country.
The predicament of the Dutch peacekeepers, putatively instruments of an all-powerful international community, but in reality nothing more than witnesses to a massacre, was captured perfectly on Bosnian Serb television. An infamous television segment depicts Ratko Mladic toasting his "victory" with the subdued Dutchbat commander, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Karremans, standing idly by, glass in hand (Karremans later claimed that the glass contained water). The irony of Karremans, himself a voyeur to atrocity, being captured on film as an accomplice to the killing was lost on no one, not least the Bosnian Muslims who saw the scene on television.