Saturday, July 11, 2015

20 Years After Srebrinica - Have We Learned Anything?

Never Forget
Twenty years ago this weekend, Bosnian Serb forces under their notorious General Ratko Mladić took the Bosnian city of Srebrenica. The women and children were rounded up and put on buses, ultimately to a UN airbase in Tuzla. The Serbs promised that the Red Cross would have access to the remaining 8000 men and boys, but of course, that never happened. We now know what did. Over the next two or three days, Serbian forces systematically murdered all 8000 Bosnian men and boys and bulldozed the bodies into mass graves. It was by far the worst war crime, the worst ethnic cleansing, and the worst genocide in Europe since the Second World War.

The thing that makes the Srebrinica massacre so outrageously apalling was that, as early as April, 1993, the UN had declared Srebrinica to be a specifically designated 'Safe Zone'. It was a place that Bosnia refugees knew they could go to receive protection from UN forces. And in early 1995, as Serbian forces rolled across Bosnia, thousands fled to Srebrinica specifically because of that explicit promise of protection. UN Resolution 819 declared the Srebrenica and Zepa safe zones and ordered that they be de-militarized. Of course, the Bosnian forces were woefully underequipped, and the Serb forces simply ignored the order.

Throughout early 1995, the Serb forces, operating on very specific orders from Serb President Radovan Karadžić, prevented supplies from getting into the enclave. When Dutch UN forces would patrol outside the city, the Serbs would prevent them from returning. When the UN would attempt to reinforce or resupply their garrison, the Serb forces would prevent it. All throughout this slow motion catastrophe, the world watched in horror as the UN forces, day after day after day, refused to use their weapons, refused to fight, and refused to defend the people who had come to the safe haven the UN itself had promised them. In the end, the city fell without a shot being fired, with no UN casualties*, and on July 11th, after being filmed drinking a toast with Mladić, Lieutennant Colonel Thom Karremans, head of the Dutch UN contingent charged with the defense of Srebrenica, was permitted to take his forces and march out of the city. The rest, as they say, is history.

Sadly, this is often the story of UN protective forces in various war zones around the world. An unwillingness to fight, highly restrictive rules of engagement, political fears of the fallout from getting involved in the fighting - the UN in New York has many times written checks it could not cash, and the people who believed their promises died hard, and in large numbers. The obvious irony here is the 'Blue Hats' are almost always the best trained, best equipped and most disciplined forces in theater, and yet a curious weakness in leadership has crippled their ability to carry out their mandate time and time again.

To be fair, this may be slowly changing. The actions of the Force Intervention Brigade under MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Great Lakes Region were brilliant. In a series of offensive operations in 2014, particularly in Kitchanga in May and Kiwanja, in the battle of Governors Ridge in September, they utterly crushed the M23 movement and put an end to a long running war. They used their superior forces and mobility, especially armored fighting vehicles and helicopter gunships to support the domestic forces and effectively put an end to the fighting.

But Srebrinica will always stand out as the darkest moment for the UN. Rwanda was bad, in that the west could not muster the will to intervene at all, but for the UN to promise all those people safety and then be utterly unwilling to assume the risk necessary to make good on their promises was cowardly to the point of craven. It is a black eye they can never live down, and we can never forget how they marched out of town and left those people to die.

*On July 8th, a Dutch YPR-765 armored personnel carrier on the perimeter came under Serbian fire and withdrew. The Bosnian forces in the area demanded that the Dutch stay and provide fire support. The Dutch soldiers refused, and as the armored vehicle continued to pull back one of the Bosnians threw a grenade that killed one of the Dutch Soldiers.

Finally, mid-afternoon on the 11th, NATO agreed to UNPROFOR requests/demands for air support and flew a few strike missions against advancing Serb armored forces. After a few hours, the Serbs threatened to murder their French hostages, kill Dutch UN personnel and begin shelling the UN Potočari compound, and air attacks were halted. It should be noted that this is not how armed forces are supposed to react to threats of attack.