Alexander Ivanko International Herald Tribune
SATURDAY, JULY 9, 2005
VIENNA Monday is the 10th anniversary of the greatest European tragedy since World War II, the fall of a Bosnian Muslim enclave called Srebrenica to Bosnian Serbs, who went on to massacre thousands of men and boys.
At the time I was the UN spokesman in Sarajevo. That spring our military analysts had predicted the fall of the three eastern enclaves still held by the Muslims - Gorazde, Srebrenica and Zepa - which had been declared "UN safe areas" and were surrounded by Bosnian Serb troops.
The reason was clear: the Bosnian Serb army could no longer sustain control of these enclaves, continue the siege of Sarajevo and fight off attacks in Bihac in Western Bosnia, another UN safe area. The expected scenario: the Serbs would close down the eastern enclaves.
The UN Protection Force - several dozen contingents, some of them more loyal along national rather than international command lines, with a mixed bag of mandates, often contradictory - had to choose between major military operations against the Bosnian Serb army or trying to wiggle its way through with half-measures, some of them bordering on appeasement, to prevent a disaster.
The United Nations - all of us working then in Sarajevo - failed. No question about it.
The first reports that something awful had happened in Srebrenica began reaching the UN headquarters in Sarajevo after several days. They came from women who had reached Tuzla in eastern Bosnia and who told horror stories of being separated from their men, and of rumors of mass executions of the men.
We knew what the Bosnian Serb army was capable of. However even to the most hardened UN officials these reports seemed highly exaggerated. How wrong we were.
Many reports - by the UN, other international organizations, academics and the press - have written about the genocide in Srebrenica. Serbia has also started coming to terms with this crime. But what are the lessons learned? What should we do to prevent this from happening again? Darfur happened after Srebrenica. How do we deal with the genocidal instincts that just don't seem to go away?
One clear lesson is that at no point in the future should a peacekeeping force be sent to an ongoing conflict where it ends up trying to separate warring factions, deliver humanitarian aid, police safe areas, organize exchanges of bodies and prisoners, and perform many other functions. With so many tasks and too few resources, it is no wonder the UN failed.
If there is a need to send an international force into a war zone, let us leave this, excuse the expression, to coalitions of the willing, and not the wary. To forces equipped and trained to do the job, with rules of engagement more robust than those of the UN.
Such a force would have a much easier time apprehending war criminals such as Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb masterminds behind the Srebrenica genocide. It is incredible that thousands of NATO troops have failed for a decade to locate two individuals whose faces are well known worldwide. I hope they will be finally delivered to the International Tribunal in The Hague this year. One suggestion to tribunal officials: make sure that the bullet-proof glass that they will be sitting behind is very, very thick.
The United Nations, for its part, can offer assistance by pointing in the right direction: expect the next conflict to erupt here, watch out for an insurgency there. The information can be gathered at the many UN field operations, analyzed and fed to the force commanders.
One possibility is to establish a UN conflict prevention center which would unite under one umbrella the operational, intelligence and analytical capabilities of the UN.
Whatever we do, let us just make sure that we do not allow another such tragedy to happen. We have the resources. Let's use them and not look the other way again when a hideous crime is committed by one nation against another.
(Alexander Ivanko, a Russian journalist, was the UN spokesman in Sarajevo during the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995.)