Captain Peter S. Bowen, USMC
NROTC, Duke University
On July 6, 1995, the Bosnian-Serb Army (BSA) launched its final offensive against the Bosnian city of Srebrenica. The 3rd Dutch Air Mobile Battalion (Dutchbat) consisting of about 450 Dutch soldiers and 27 armored personnel carriers (APC's) under the command of LTCOL Ton Karremans stood ready to protect 35,000 Bosnian-Muslim refugees in Srebrenica, including 25,000 in the Dutch Potocari compound1. When Bosnian-Serb General Mladic met with LTCOL Karremans late on July 11, Mladic slit the throat of a pig and told Karremans that it was how Mladic would treat the Bosnian-Muslims. An agreement was reached that night concerning the fate of Srebrenica2. The next morning, July 12, Dutch forces allowed the Bosnian-Serb Army to disarm them and occupy the Potocari compound. Refuges and Dutch soldiers reported that Bosnian-Serb forces separated Bosnian-Muslim men from women and began beatings and executions. Dutch forces witnessed some of the executions, but did nothing to protect the refugees3. Within forty-eight hours, Bosnian-Serbs forcibly deported some 25,000 Bosnian-Muslims. Of the 10,000 remaining Bosnian-Muslims, the United Nations (UN) estimates that as many as 8,000 were executed and buried in mass graves around Srebrenica or hunted down by the Bosnian-Serb army and killed as they walked sixty miles through Bosnian-Serb controlled territory to other refugee camps.4
How could the United Nations and NATO permit this kind of mass-execution to occur? How could the commander of a modern NATO force fail to safeguard refugees under his protection—a failure that resulted in the murder of 8,000 non-combatants?
This paper will review a chronology of the events leading to the Srebrenica tragedy, discuss the factors leading to the tragedy and draw lessons learned. The implications of the Srebrenica tragedy are important: the incident contributed significantly to the US decision to deploy American soldiers to Bosnia in late 1995 and created a serious crisis in the Dutch government.
Ethnic conflicts of the kind that exists in Bosnia occur throughout the world including Rwanda, Burundi, northern Iraq, Cambodia and Chechnya. The hate that fuels many of these conflicts is deep-seated and especially intolerant, often resulting in the mass executions of thousands of civilians. While forces may be deployed into an area under the auspices of NATO or the UN, the nations sending the forces may have different, often conflicting interests in the region. The leaders of units as small as battalions, companies, platoons and even squads may find themselves in extremely demanding, complex situations that require independent action and carry very serious moral and far-reaching international political implications. All of this conducted under the watchful eye of world media.
During the summer of 1993, when the fall of the Bosnian city of Gorazde to Bosnian-Serbs seemed inevitable, the United Nations Security Council declared six Bosnian cities—Gorazde, Sarajevo, Zepa, Tuzla, Bihac and Srebrenica—safe havens for Bosnian citizens fleeing Bosnian-Serb aggression. In February 1994, the Dutch 11th Air Mobile Battalion relieved the Canadian battalion safeguarding Srebrenica. Dutchbat consisted of two infantry companies and one headquarters company totaling about 750 personnel with 27 armored personnel carriers armed with .50cal machine guns. Because some of the Dutchbat soldiers were deployed near Tuzla and others were on leave (and not allowed to return by the Bosnian-Serbs), Dutchbat had an effective strength in Srebrenica of about 450 personnel. UN rules did not allow UNPROFOR/NATO forces to deploy with mortars, 25mm cannon or other "heavy" weapons.5
A brief chronology of the events in 1995 leading to the Bosnian-Serb army attack on Srebrenica includes:6
A chronology of the Bosnian-Serb attack on Srebrenica:
Prior to the fall of Srebrenica, the Dutch commander received the following order from General Janvier (UNPROFOR):
SUBJECT: ORDERS FOR DEFENSE OF DUTCHBAT AND PROTECTION OF REFUGEES IN
Message: In view of the new situation in Srebrenica the following are the orders of Acting Commander UNPROFOR for the defense of Dutchbat and the protection of refugees in Srebrenica.
a. Enter into local negotiations with BSA forces for immediate ceasefire. Giving up any weapons and military equipment is not authorized and is not a point of discussion.
b. Concentrate your forces into the Potocari camp, including the withdrawal of your OP's. Take all reasonable measures to protect refugees and civilians in your care.
c. Continue all possible means to defend your forces and installations from attack. This is to include the use of close air support if necessary…. 7
Several interrelated factors contributed to the incident at Srebrenica. In May 1995, NATO launched several air strikes against Bosnian-Serb positions in Bosnia. In response, Bosnian-Serb forces took 270 UNPROFOR/NATO personnel hostage, confining many of them at sites expected to be targeted by NATO aircraft. UNPROFOR General Janvier (France) and UN Ambassador Akashi (from Japan) reached an agreement with Bosnian-Serb General Mladic that further operations would be conducted by "peaceful means". Essentially, the deal meant that the UNPROFOR personnel would be released and that UNPROFOR/NATO would not conduct any more air strikes.8 The agreement gave Bosnian-Serb forces free rein to attack Bosnian-Muslim refugee safe-havens like Srebrenica without worrying about NATO air strikes.
UNPROFOR forces entered Bosnia without heavy weapons: no mortars, no 25mm or larger cannon, no artillery, no tanks. Without these heavy weapons, UNPROFOR forces depended upon the availability of NATO air strikes to maintain a credible defense. In order to receive air strikes, requests had to be approved by both NATO and the UN (General Janvier and Ambassador Akashi had to both agree) in a "dual-key" process. With very few exceptions, all requests for air strikes were denied because either General Janvier or Ambassador Akashi refused approval.9
Without a credible threat of air strikes, due to the agreement made between the Bosnian-Serbs and UNPROFOR and the inefficiency of the dual-key approval process, UNPROFOR lacked defensive credibility. Bosnian-Serb forces exploited that lack of defensive credibility in their attack on Srebrenica and other safe-havens.
The soldiers of Dutchbat were positively inclined towards the Bosnian-Serbs. Even though Bosnian-Serbs blockaded Dutchbat for several weeks early in 1995, they allowed Dutchbat soldiers to shop at local Bosnian-Serb stores and allowed them transition through their lines for purposes of leave. On the other hand, many Dutch soldiers held the negative feelings towards the Bosnian-Muslims, considered them weak and unwilling to defend themselves, and resented being fired upon by Bosnian-Muslim militiamen. Several accounts described Dutch soldiers giving Bosnian-Muslim children "asbestos" sandwiches and heat tabs disguised as sugar cubes to eat.10
Finally, different nations, organizations and individuals participated in UNPROFOR and NATO with different, potentially conflicting interests and objectives. The primary interest of UN Ambassador Akashi was the success of diplomatic negotiations that he was conducting with the Bosnian-Serbs. Any military action by UNPROFOR—especially air strikes—seriously threatened the success of those negotiations. As the UNPROFOR commander, General Janvier had responsibility for all UNPROFOR personnel—including the Dutch battalion at Srebrenica. At the same time, General Janvier was the senior French commander and had personal responsibility for all French forces in Yugoslavia. Air strikes approved in support of Dutch forces at Srebrenica had the high probability of resulting in French soldiers being taken hostage in other parts of Bosnia by Bosnian-Serb forces. In order for UNPROFOR forces to receive air strikes, consensus had to be reached on two separate levels: first among participating nations within both the UN and NATO and then between the UN and NATO. Both Akashi and Janvier were faced with conflicting interests. Ambassador Akashi had a personal interest in denying Dutch air strike requests in order to avoid jeopardizing his diplomatic negotiations, while several reports stated that General Janvier might have denied the Dutch air strike requests under pressure from his government in order to ensure that French soldiers were not taken hostage in retaliation.
From the events of the incident several factors can be easily identified:11
The Dutch Department of Defense report on the Srebrenica incident found that "Dutchbat cannot be blamed for its role during and after the fall of the muslim enclave Srebrenica." Nevertheless, Dutchbat, LTCOL Karremans and the Dutch Department of Defense received serious criticism for their actions and failures during the Srebrenica incident. On institutional and personal levels, the Srebrenica incident raises some very serious questions:
a. Should the Dutchbat commander have defended the Bosnian-Muslims
if it meant possible annihilation of Dutchbat?
b. Was it reasonable for the Dutch commander to expect that the Bosnian-Serbs, given the opportunity, would commit atrocities against Bosnian-Muslims?
c. If Dutchbat had fought to defend Srebrenica, would "bloodying the nose" of the Bosnian-Serbs been enough to cause them to stop their attack?
A number of clear lessons can be drawn from the Srebrenica incident.
The greatest lesson—and potentially the greatest victim—of Srebrenica concerns trust. Few things make a military force more effective than the existence of deep inherent trust up and down the chain of command. Even fewer things undermine the effectiveness of a military force than a lack of trust within the chain of command. Peace-keeping operations often take place in an environment of extreme hate, intolerance and mutual suspicion and make great demands on small unit leaders dispersed widely throughout a region. Add real-time media coverage and the different and potentially conflicting interests of a multinational peacekeeping effort and the situation is ripe for disaster. Senior leaders must have confidence—have trust—that the orders they give will be followed. Junior leaders must be able to trust that the orders received were given in good faith—that they have not been compromised by conflicting interests.
The greatest tragedy of Srebrenica is that the murder of thousands of innocent, non-combatant Bosnian-Muslims could have been prevented. Without even laying blame on anyone or any institution, the greatest danger of Srebrenica is that trust up and down multinational chains of command has been undermined by the incident and may be in doubt in future operations. Whether or not General Janvier or Ambassador Akashi actually compromised the safety of Dutch forces and Bosnian-Muslims in Srebrenica by pursuing conflicting interests, the question itself—a legitimate question—has undermined trust in the future.
Multinational peacekeeping operations have a very troublesome, potentially fatal weakness. If the conflicting interests of governments participating in multinational peacekeeping efforts compromise the orders given by senior leaders or the execution of orders by junior leaders, then the essential element of trust and the military effectiveness of the multinational force will be severely—if not fatally—undermined. This undermining of trust, loss of effectiveness and vulnerability to tragedy is less likely when the interests of nations participating in multinational operations coincide and more likely as those interests conflict or differ. US interests are more likely to coincide with other nations within organizations like NATO—but the Srebrenica incident demonstrates that interest conflicts can exist even among allied western European nations. National interests are far more likely to conflict within organizations like the United Nations where the member nations not only have widely varying and conflicting interests, but the organization itself has interests that often conflict with those of its member nations.
If we are to continue participating in multinational peacekeeping operations around the world, then we must be extremely careful about putting forces under the cognizance of multinational commands. Failure to heed the lessons of Srebrenica leaves us vulnerable to unnecessary loss of life, dishonor and ignominy.
Much of the research for the paper was conducted on the Internet World Wide Web (WWW). Several sites have collections of valuable documents, news stories, chronologies and information concerning the incident at Srebrenica including:
1Online at http://mediaport.org/~rattle/chr1sreb.html also "Dutch ‘peacekeepers’ helped Bosnian Genocide" Boston Sunday Globe April 12, 1996
2"Dutch Conscience Is Stung Troop’s Failure to Protect Bosnia Muslims", Stephen Kinzer, New York Times News Service, Oct 8, 1995 online at http://www.amber.ucsf.edu/homes/ross/public_html/bosnia_/sreb5.txt
3"Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1019 (1995) on violations of international humanitarian law in the areas of Srebrenica, Zepa, Banja Luka and Sanski Most", United Nations Security Council, online at http://www.amber.ucsf.edu/homes/ross/public_html/bosnia_/sreb14.txt
4ibid. Also, see "UN’s Deadly Deal, How troop-hostage talks led to slaughter at Srebrenica", Roy Gutman, Newsday, May 29, 1996
5"Watch on Dutchbat, Chronology" online at http://mediaport.org/~rattle/chr1sreb.html. Also "Dutch ‘peacekeepers’ helped Bosnian Genocide"
6"Watch on Dutchbat, Chronology". Chronology cross-checked with other articles listed above.
7"U.N. TROOPS DIDN'T PROTECT REFUGEES, SURVIVORS REPORT", Elizabeth Neuffler, BOSTON GLOBE, Oct 30, 1995 online at http://www.amber.ucsf.edu/homes/ross/public_html/bosnia_/sreb8.txt
8"UN’s Deadly Deal" and "Dutch Conscience Is Stung Troop’s Failure to Protect Bosnia Muslims"
9Ibid. Also "Dutch ‘peacekeepers’ helped Bosnian Genocide"
10"Dutch ‘peacekeepers’ helped Bosnian Genocide" and "Dutch Conscience Is Stung Troop’s Failure to Protect Bosnia Muslims"
11 While there doesn’t seem to be any direct evidence that the French government pressured General Janvier to deny the Dutch requests for air strikes, almost all the articles cited make reference to General Janvier’s reluctance to approve the air strikes in spite of the dangerous situation and the unanimous recommendations of staff. The implication is that General Janvier had an ulterior motive for denying the air strikes: he feared that French soldiers would be taken hostage in retaliation or there was a secret plan to let the Bosnian-Serbs capture Srebrenica in order to have pretext for US intervention. The Dutch government formally stated that they believed that there were no ulterior motives for General Janvier’s decisions to deny air strikes. Also see the Die Tageszeitung story "Did Chirac Prevent NATO Air Raids in Srebrenica" Nov 1, 1995, also "UN’s Deadly Deal, How troop-hostage talks led to slaughter at Srebrenica" and "This Week in Bosnia", AP Report, Nov 2, 1995 at http://www.amber.ucsf.edu/homes/ross/public_html/bosnia_/sreb9.txt