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An avoidable fallout: A case study of the UN’s failure in Bosnia and Herzegovina
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Abstract

According to the UN charter, this organization aims to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”[1] These were the tenets that laid the foundation of the longest-serving international organization, established in 1945. As its aim indicates, the UN was deemed by the international community to lead the charge on matters of international peace and security. However, as Bosnia and Herzegovina was being ingulfed in nationalist and ethnic strife, the UN failed to uphold its primary duty.

Keywords: Bosnia and Herzegovina; UN; peacekeeping failure

The UN’s failure in Bosnia and Herzegovina

At least two million people had lost their lives (both civilians and armed forces) and another two million were forcefully displaced from their homes as result of the Bosnian war.[2] The sheer act of violence showed the world how fragile peace is and that when identity becomes the basis of a conflict, the integrity of the state and security of individuals is threatened. The international community to date is haunted by the brutality and barbarity that was witnessed during the course of this war.

As early as 1992, the UN had recognized Bosnia and Herzegovina as a sovereign nation-state.[3] However, when the Croatian and Serb proxies were ambushing the Bosniaks from all corners, it failed to condemn both Serbia and Croatia as aggressors in the war. A parallel between the Bosnian war and Kuwait’s invasion could be drawn. Unlike the latter case, wherein the UN invoked Chapter VII and condemned Iraq as the aggressor state under resolution 678, the former perhaps was not even a blip on its radar.[4] As the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) community was being shelled and raped, and the fundamental values of its inception were being violated, the UN failed to immediately deploy an Emergency Peacekeeping Force to the country to halt the ongoing carnage. It found itself unable to secure a lasting ceasefire between the two major warring parties, i.e., the Bosnian Serbs and Bosniaks.

The notion of collective security was torn apart by the aggressors as the victims and survivors fell prey to ethnic violence, violation of human rights, and subsequent genocide, with the UN unwilling to come to their aid. As a humanitarian crisis was unfolding in the country, the UN refrained from taking the requisite measures to prevent the horror which was yet to come.

Although by the end of 1992, then UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali agreed to send 41 military observers to the Mostar and three other municipalities, it largely stayed away from directly intervening in the ongoing war.[5] This refusal to intervene gave the Serbs free rein in continuing with one of the worst acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Europe, second only to the Holocaust once unleashed by the Nazi regime.

To an extent, with the aid of UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) and resolution 770, humanitarian aid was being delivered to certain parts of the country, nevertheless leaving behind several of them. President Izetbegovic (Bosniak President) had repeatedly called for direct UN intervention, albeit without any success. His request was constantly denied on account of such a step being a problematic and an impractical proposal. After the European Commission had imposed sanctions on Serbia, the UN decided to follow suit. However, these sanctions proved to be ineffective in their implementation. Romania and Greece were complicit in supplying resources to Belgrade, and Serbia itself was largely a self-sufficient economy. Moreover, there was an absence of a concrete proposal in place regarding the steps that would need to be undertaken in the event that Serbia, or any other country for that matter, blatantly disregarded the sanctions.[6]

Large-scale and systematic rapes, primarily against Bosniak and Croat women, had become the norm during the course of the war. According to various estimates, 20,000-60,000 women (young girls, adults, and elderly women) became the victims of wartime sexual violence.[7]

As the war progressed, the UN sent in additional troops to combine their forces with the existing troops supervising the ongoing relief operations. However, there was an absence of blueprints according to which the UN peacekeepers could carry out a clear mandate. The mandate was marred by those who contributed troops but wanted to put forth a limited mandate and those who wanted a bold mandate but refused to contribute troops to aid the matter.[8] Moreover, to maintain their neutrality, the peacekeepers left the Bosniaks to be dealt a devastating blow at the hands of the formidable Serbs.[9] There were numerous peace plans which were proposed before the Dayton Accords (1995) came into being, including Carrington-Cutileiro, Vance-Owen, Owen-Stoltenburg, and Contact Group.[10] Nevertheless, the UN failed to rally around any one of them and take decisive actions to ensure its implementation.

There would be many who would justify the UN’s actions. However, its response to the Serb military and paramilitary would now be considered deplorable, thereby making it an accomplice in the genocide that was ensuing. As massacres, mass graves, and detention camps became the norm of the day, the UN, besides condemning such heinous crimes, did nothing but stand idly as the entire country was being ravaged. Diego Arria (former Venezuelan Ambassador to the UN and member of the UNSC) claimed that walking down the halls of the UN a decade after the war came to an end made him feel like a witness to a crime. Members of the UNSC, including him, had looked the other way as the Bosniaks made repeated calls for the international community to come to their assistance. Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein of Jordan (a UN official in Zagreb with responsibilities tied to Srebrenica) has explained that the response of the UN, including NATO, soon began to resemble that of a toothless tiger.[11]

One of the most documented events during the war was the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995. Eight thousand young boys and men were massacred by the Serb forces and the women and young girls were subjected to rape. This example became one of the focal points of the war since this area was designated by the UN in resolution 819 as one of the safe havens to be disarmed and guarded by Dutch peacekeepers. Due to its demarcation as such, 60,000 Muslims were believed to have sought refuge there. Forty-eight hours is all that was required by the Serb forces to carry out their orders.[12] This massacre happened because of the prior unwillingness of those who were obligated to directly intervene in the matter. The Serb onslaught was met with no counter-attacks, either on the ground or in the air, in a manner that is similar to what the Nazis witnessed as they began to take back the annexed territories in the post-World War I era. As the town fell prey to the invasion by the Serbs, many attempted to flee by trekking through the Serb-controlled areas, with fatal results.

The Eastern towns of Zepa and Gorazde, similarly designated as safe havens by the UN, were not left unscathed either.[13] The Bosnian capital of Sarajevo was besieged by the Serb forces for 46 months and suffered through bombings of crowded markets and inevitable destruction of the architecture and social fabric of the city. Ethnic cleansing was also witnessed in, although not limited to, the Bosniak majority towns of Foca, Visegrad, and Zvornik.[14] It was only when the Serbs failed to comply with the UN’s ultimatum in August 1995, that the international community, spearheaded by the NATO, intervened in the ongoing war.

Conclusion

As the above analysis indicates, the UN had regressed into a largely obsolete organization. The humanitarian aid it had provided did nothing to ensure the safety of the lives and property of those who were affected by the violent conflict. It allowed the Serbs to perpetuate conflict and incite hatred without taking any decisive steps to halt their advance. The mission of UNPROFOR in the safe areas was to “to protect the civilian populations of the designated safe areas against armed attacks and other hostile acts, through the presence of its troops and, if necessary, through the application of airpower, in accordance with agreed procedure.”[15] The events as they unfolded in the designated areas spoke volumes to the contrary. The premeditated onslaught caused the survivors psychological trauma besides the visible physical scars on their bodies.

The UN had made a grave error in deploying only a few thousand troops around the country. The Dutch peacekeepers meant to guard Srebrenica were lightly armed, few in number, and thus unable to put up an adequate defence front. They were ill-equipped to take on the might of the Serb forces, backed by Belgrade.

Any effort to establish peace suffered an eventual defeat until the Accords were implemented in December 1995. However, the implementation of one of the most comprehensive peace agreements in world history does not negate the fact that the UN had failed the ideals which previously had led to its inception. Moreover, it had failed humanity. It took three years of savage ethnic warfare and genocidal violence for the UN to wake up to the realization of, and put a stop to, the unspeakable horror unfolding with every passing moment.

In 1999, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged the previous blunders made by the UN. He explained that any attempt in the future deemed as a systematic and deliberate attempt to purge, annihilate, or brutalize a population must be dealt with in a decisive manner using all the necessary means.[16] While those are noble words, one has to wonder if they hold any meaning for the UN and its member states.

In July 2015, marking the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, the United Nations Security Council put forward a draft resolution to officially condemn the massacre of the 8,000 Bosniak men and boys as a genocide. However, Russia, on behalf of Serbia, vetoed the resolution. After all, Russia firmly believes that what happened in Srebrenica was anything but a genocide.[17] Thus, the UN failed to provide the survivors any hope of a formal global acknowledgment of their suffering and all they had lost.

In the coming years, it will remain a frightening possibility that the Serbs getting ‘rewarded’ for the genocide will lead to a domino effect. It will inevitably set an example that the international community and organizations will never be able to successfully nip conflict in its bud and rebuild peace. Rather, they will ‘reward’ those who commit these acts of genocide by handing over a territory, largely ethnically cleansed, to be governed according to their own will. The Republika Srpska (Serb-dominated territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina) gained international recognition as a territory which had been hacked out through the violation of every tenet of the international law and basic human rights.

Saman Ayesha Kidwai has completed her MA in Conflict Analysis and Peacebuilding from Jamia Millia Islamia. Current main interests: International affairs, Middle Eastern and Balkan politics, as well as Gender-based issues.

 

References

A Guide to the United States’ History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by Country, since 1776: Bosnia and Herzegovina. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://history.state.gov/countries/bosnia-herzegovina

Bosnian Genocide. (2009, October 14). Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/1990s/bosnian-genocide

Chollet, D. (2015, July 9). The Shame of Srebrenica. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/09/the-shame-of-srebrenica-bosnia-iraq-war-libya-syria/

Daalder, I. H. (1998, December 1). Decision to Intervene: How the War in Bosnia Ended. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/articles/decision-to-intervene-how-the-war-in-bosnia-ended/

Fernald, B. (2017, October 23). Top 10 Facts about the Bosnian Genocide. Retrieved from https://borgenproject.org/10-facts-about-the-bosnian-genocide/

Hirsch , M. L. (2012, February 8). Bosnia. Retrieved from https://www.womensmediacenter.com/women-under-siege/conflicts/bosnia

Nguyen, J. T. (1990, November 29). U.N. authorizes war if needed but major powers hope for peace. Retrieved from https://www.upi.com/Archives/1990/11/29/UN-authorizes-war-if-needed-but-major-powers-hope-for-peace/2252659854800/

Rigby, V. (1994, January). BOSNIA-HERCEGOVINA: THE INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/BP/bp374-e.htm

The Bosnian War and Srebrenica Genocide. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://endgenocide.org/learn/past-genocides/the-bosnian-war-and-srebrenica-genocide/

The Fall of Srebrenica and the Failure of UN Peacekeeping: Bosnia and Herzegovina. (1995, October 15). Retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/report/1995/10/15/fall-srebrenica-and-failure-un-peacekeeping/bosnia-and-herzegovina

UN Charter (full text). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/un-charter-full-text/

Williams, C. J. (1994, December 11). The Foiled Peace Efforts. Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-12-11-mn-7783-story.html


[1] See UN’s Charter for a comprehensive understanding of the UN as an international organization.

[2] See Fernald (2017) to examine some of the major facts about the Bosnian genocide.

[3] See OFFICE OF THE HISTORIAN to look at the US’s history of recognition, diplomatic and consular relations, by country since 1776.

[4] See Nguyen (1990) for a detailed examination of the international response to the UN resolution 678.

[5] See Rigby (1994) for an analysis of the international response to the Bosnian war.

[6] See Rigby (1994) for an analysis of the international response to the Bosnian war.

[7] See Hirsch (2012) to comprehend the country profile of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1992-95 war.

[8] See Rigby (1994) for an analysis of the international response to the Bosnian war.

[9] See Daalder (1998) to examine how the Bosnian war came to an end.

[10] See Williams (1995) for an understanding of the various peace agreements that were proposed to bring the Bosnian war to an end.

[11] See Krastev (2005) to analyze how the UN failed the citizens of Srebrenica.

[12] See Daalder (1998) to examine how the Bosnian war came to an end.

[13] See Daalder (1998) to examine how the Bosnian war came to an end.

[14] See HISTORY (2009) to examine the Bosnian genocide.

[15] See The Fall of Srebrenica and the Failure of UN Peacekeeping (1995) to see how a safe area under UN protection was overrun by the Serb forces and the events that culminated into the Srebrenica massacre.

[16] See Chollet (2015) to see how the Srebrenica massacre still casts a dark shadow of shame on generations of US policy makers.

[17] See UNITED TO END GENOCIDE to trace the onset of the war until its aftermath in the post-Dayton era.

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