Lessons from Srebrenica: 20 Years Later

An extraordinary group of UN officials, military leaders, politicians and survivors recounted their memories of the Srebrenica massacre in a public panel at The Hague Institute on 1 July. The panel was the culmination of a three day conference hosted in partnership with the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and the National Security Archives at George Washington University, which sought to better understand the chain of events leading up to the genocide, as both an academic service to history and to guide future policymaking.

Moderated by David Rohde, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica; the panelists briefly spoke about the lessons and insights they had gained from the conference, before opening the floor for questions.

“You cannot blame soldiers for not keeping the peace if political leaders are not also prepared to work for a durable solution to the conflict” was the verdict of Yasushi Akashi, the former Special Representative of the Secretary General in the former Yugoslavia. This was a sentiment echoed by former High Representative Carl Bildt, who insisted a political process must always accompany a military peacekeeping operation. He urged the international community to be honest about what it can achieve, saying “don’t write Security Council resolutions so you can have a nice press conference – write them to empower the people on the ground to do something.”

Meanwhile General Rupert Smith, former UNPROFOR Commander in Sarajevo, had some words of caution for future peacekeeping operations. He warned that the international community should not “stand in other people’s wars unless it is prepared to fight one or more of the parties.” He also stressed the problems of having two operations over and in the same place but answering to different political directions, and concluded with the sobering observation that no amount of international military force could have prevented the fall of Srebrenica.

Other participants chose to stress the importance of analyzing events in Srebrenica to try and prevent future atrocities. “To say we did not know and did not expect Srebrenica to happen is unfair to the victims and survivors” argued Muhamed Durakovic, a survivor of the genocide. “If mistakes were made it is important to recognize them. And don’t apologize to me or the government but apologize to the thousands of children who grew up without uncles, brothers or fathers – they are constantly suffering, even today” he went on to say.

The problem with Srebrenica was “everyone made good decisions with wrong outcomes” argued Zlatko Lugumdzija, former deputy Prime Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Cases like this represent numerous examples of collective failure – and an underestimation of the power of evil” added Joris Voorhoeve, Dutch Defense Minister at the time.

The lengthy question and answer session that followed allowed the audience to engage with the panelists and their comments. In response to a question about the EU’s apparent unwillingness to engage in Bosnia, Carl Bildt cautioned that a consequence of Srebrenica should not be that EU members are afraid to try and make a peace in fragile environments, like Mali today. He stressed that “there is a tendency post Srebrenica to back away from engagement because it dangerous for soldiers and politically difficult. But for all the soul searching of failures, it is better to try and fail than not try at all.”

Looking to the Dutch experience, Joris Voorhoeve admitted that they did not do enough to prevent evil winning in Srebrenica– but the presence of UN troops did help reduce the terrible disaster somewhat. He argued that the real problem though was the design of the operation and that NATO, rather than UN troops, should have been protecting the safe area with force. He also took personal responsibility for not doing more to prevent the atrocity, saying “I blame myself for not making the case in person to the UN for overwhelming NATO airpower in early July. I did it by phone, but I should have flown to Zagreb to make the case personally, that close air support needed to happen even if it risked the lives of the Dutch troops held hostage.”

Finally, Smith and Atashi provided some insight into the controversial dual key system for approving air strikes. Smith said he welcomed being given one of the keys, saying that it increased his bargaining power and enabled him to use carefully applied force to persuade the Bosnian Serbs to negotiate for peace. Atashi added that it was the threat, and not the use of, air power that was crucial for him when negotiating with the Bosnian Serb leaders. Voorhoeve concluded with te observation that “it is clear that when General Smith turned the key things started to work. The application of strong military power led to Dayton – I just wish we’d had it eight weeks earlier in Srebrenica. But we owe the end of the war to a combination of British military cunning and American and NATO power.”

The Hague Institute would like to thank the panelists and our partners at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Security Archive for their assistance in hosting the panel event. More information about the conference and its outcomes can be found at ‘Failing to Prevent: International Decision Making in the Age of Genocide’.

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