How the U.N. Failed Srebrenica


By Edward P. Joseph

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In the video, the Serbs take their time, cracking jokes and taunting the Muslim men they’ve trucked to a field outside a small hamlet in Eastern Bosnia. Then the joking stops. One by one, the victims, their hands tied behind their backs, are shot at close range — all but two. “You’re the winners,” the Serbs tell this pair, and order them to carry the bodies of their comrades into a house. Then the Serbs gun them down, too.

The recently discovered video, broadcast last month in Serbia, is sickening proof of what happened to the Muslim men of Srebrenica 10 years ago. Tomorrow, world leaders and dignitaries will gather to remember the approximately 7,800 men and boys who were murdered there by Serbian troops in the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II. And once again, they’ll be asking themselves why it happened — and offering incomplete answers.

Srebrenica is unforgettable not only for its scale, but because, unlike the present genocide going on in Sudan’s Darfur region, it happened while the international community and the world media were deeply engaged in Bosnia. The United Nations had declared Srebrenica a “safe area” — a specially protected site backed up by U.N. peacekeepers on the ground and NATO strike planes in the air. Yet the Serbs managed to seize it anyway. The question that has haunted Srebrenica ever since — as it haunts other places where officials watch as victims suffer — is: Why was there no will to act to prevent the tragedy?

Understandably, the blame has focused on high-level organizational and governmental leaders. Kofi Annan, then the head of the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, released a scathing report in 1999 and apologized on behalf of the organization for its failure in Srebrenica. European leaders and officials who will be at the 10th anniversary commemoration will almost certainly acknowledge how much more their countries might have done to avert the tragedy. A chorus of speakers will decry Serbia’s failure, even after release of the video, to apologize for the crimes, and NATO’s failure to arrest the war-time Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

But preventing another tragedy means understanding where and how not just organizations, but also individuals — at all levels — have failed. What about the critical layer of mid-level U.N. officials who helped perpetuate a policy in Bosnia that was steadfast only in its opposition to NATO intervention and culminated in a catastrophe that remains a permanent stain on the institution? Did those officials believe in the policy? Or did many of them just go along? Why have so few expressed regret or shame at what happened on their watch (as the Canadian peacekeeper in Rwanda, Col. Romeo Dallaire, has done)? Given what we saw in Bosnia and Rwanda, can we believe or hope that a U.N. force sent to Darfur would really act to stop the genocide there?

I have thought about these questions more than most. I served as a U.N. civil affairs officer in Bosnia for much of the 31/2 years of war. My colleagues and I received the waves of women and children expelled from Srebrenica before their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons were executed. About a week later, I found myself in Srebrenica’s neighboring enclave of Zepa, face to face with Mladic, an architect of the massacres. While his forces were finishing the slaughter in Srebrenica, he had turned his sights on Zepa’s Muslim men. The Muslim commander, Col. Avdo Palic, saved his soldiers by hiding them in the forests while he stayed behind to negotiate with Mladic. A colleague and I watched and protested, vainly, as Palic was seized by Serb troops from our collapsed U.N. compound and taken away (and likely killed). Because of this experience, and my feelings of responsibility toward Palic, I continue to ask why we let Srebrenica happen, and why we don’t act to prevent other tragedies. Over time, I’ve come up with three answers.

First, not all those who enter the world of peacekeeping and nation building do so out of noble motives. The U.N. is hardly the only international organization that attracts people (particularly from countries with limited opportunities) who are motivated, instead, by the pay, which is reliable and relatively high. Even Westerners often decide whether to join a U.N. or other mission after checking out the level of the per diem, which is often taken as tax-free income. Someone who is primarily interested in financial or career gains is unlikely to rock the boat, even if it’s flagrantly off course. Inevitably, some U.N. staffers who knew, after three years of Serb defiance, that the Bosnia policy was wrong still went along with it. It will always be difficult to find people willing to go to remote and dangerous places. But overdoing the incentives can attract the wrong kind of staff and reinforce the wrong kind of motivations.

Second, even the vast majority who are motivated by the desire to do good may still find their principles compromised or confused by organizational loyalty. Many on the staff of the senior U.N. official in the former Yugoslavia, the Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi, internalized his overarching priority: to protect the U.N.’s neutrality and “even-handedness” by avoiding the use of force against the Serbs. Consistently, they rebuffed those who did advocate force (like the U.N.’s military commander in Bosnia, Gen. Rupert Smith), and toned down reports sent to New York to maintain the premise that “all sides were equally guilty.”

In one case, a zealous mid-level U.N. official even tried to block the deployment of peacekeepers to protect a hospital in Bihac, another collapsing “safe area” in which I served. As approaching Serb forces lobbed artillery shells at the hospital, we urged the U.N. mission headquarters to let us send a unit to defend the patients, noting that hospitals were protected areas under the Geneva Conventions. The responding official, scrupulously adhering to policy, argued that we had no basis to deploy because the U.N. itself is not a party to the Geneva Conventions. (Fortunately, the U.N. commander ignored the specious reasoning and dispatched the peacekeepers. The Serbs immediately ceased firing on the hospital.)

Like so many on the U.N. staff, the headquarters official had put protecting the organization above protecting civilians. Ironically, such action instead left the U.N.’s reputation in tatters. Unfortunately, senior U.N. officials still peddle the line that the Secretariat was merely the “servant” of a divided Security Council that failed to provide the U.N. with enough resources in Srebrenica. In fact, the Secretariat independently resisted any use of force in Bosnia, including NATO airpower that could have more than compensated for shortfalls on the ground. For the sake of current and future U.N. missions, it is essential that the organization not turn explanations about Srebrenica into excuses.

The third and least understood factor in collective passivity toward evil is the prevalent taboo against “getting emotional” about death and tragedy. While there is always a risk of rushing to judgment or allowing particularly graphic evidence to cloud decision- making, the greater risk is from exaggerated clinical detachment. Without a sense of guided outrage, of empathy for the victims of abuse, organization staff, even human rights workers, are prone to “move on” and accept it when bureaucracies shrug their shoulders.

For much of the war in Bosnia, U.N. mission staff were based in the Croatian capital of Zagreb — physically and emotionally distanced from the suffering of the Bosnian people. From the time I first found myself in the war zone of Sarajevo in the summer of 1992, I was stunned by the bland demurral that headquarters reflexively issued when we sought action from the peacekeepers: “It’s not in our mandate.” After the war, officials frequently declined to investigate alleged abuses with a new mantra: “We can’t deal with individual cases.”

But mandates (which are often vague and subject to interpretation) or resource limitations (which depend on effort and imagination as much as equipment or staff) rarely impose an absolute bar against getting involved. An egregious example occurred in Macedonia in 2002, after a police death squad gunned down seven Pakistani migrants. Macedonian officials tried to present the victims as international terrorists intercepted on a failed bid to blow up the U.S. Embassy. The case immediately raised suspicion. Yet the lead international entity on police matters in Macedonia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, declined to investigate, splitting hairs over whether or not it had a human rights mandate. Clearly, it is important to maintain a cool head in a crisis, but excising all emotion leads to bureaucratic disinterest, injustice and tragedy.

War-time intervention and postwar nation building can present excruciatingly difficult challenges and choices. Conflicts, even in the same region, can differ greatly and defy categorization, making it hard to transplant lessons and foolhardy to impose doctrine. And it will always be tempting to put protecting the organization ahead of protecting the local populace. But the colossal failure in Srebrenica is a reminder that where lives are in peril, officials, at all levels, must honestly examine their motives and priorities – – and those of their leaders. After Srebrenica, following the company line can never again be an excuse.

Edward Joseph served in the Balkans from 1992 to 2003, on active duty with the U.S. Army and with the United Nations, the International Crisis Group and several relief agencies.

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Copyright The Washington Post Company Jul 10, 2005