“The spread of illicit arms and light weapons is a global threat to human security and human rights,” insists United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan. But it would be far more accurate to say: “The U.N.’s disarmament policy is a global threat to human security and human rights.” It was the U.N.’s lethal policy that was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents in Srebrenica in 1995.
For orchestrating a vicious ethnic-cleansing campaign that included the slaughter in Srebrenica, ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic stands accused of genocide and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the Hague. The trial, which began on February 12, 2002, and is expected to last two years or more, has been billed by Reuters as “the biggest international war crimes trial in Europe since Hitler’s henchmen were tried at Nuremberg.” Milosevic, the first head of state to face war-crimes charges, faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. (The tribunal has no death penalty.)
The toll in Bosnia has been estimated at 200,000 dead and one million refugees. The carnage included the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 — Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II.
The massacre of more than 7,500 men and boys at Srebrenica garnered worldwide publicity after Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic, the senior commander charged with genocide there, was found guilty by the ICTY on August 2, 2001. As CNN explained: “Krstic planned and led a week-long rampage in July 1995 in the U.N. declared ‘safe zone’ of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, where Muslims had been promised protection by U.N. soldiers.” Krstic was given a 46-year prison term. (Although the terms “safe area,” “safe haven,” and “safe zone” are often used interchangeably, there are legal distinctions between them; Srebrenica was supposed to be a “safe area.”)
A large share of the blame for Srebrenica was placed on the Dutch government and ill-prepared Dutch “peacekeepers,” as detailed in an April 2002 report by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. Dutch prime minister Wim Kok — and his entire cabinet — resigned in shame a week later.
Located near the eastern border of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the silver-mining town of Srebrenica was once part of the Republic of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia had been created by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and until the country broke up in 1991, it was the largest nation on the Balkan peninsula, approximately the size of the state of Virginia.
Yugoslavia was turned into a Communist dictatorship in 1945 by Marshal Tito. When Tito died in 1980, his successors feared civil war, so a system was instituted according to which the collective leadership of government and party offices would be rotated annually. But the new government foundered, and in 1989, Serbian president Milosevic began re-imposing Serb and Communist hegemony. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in June 1991.
Slovenia repelled the Yugoslav army in ten days, but fighting in Croatia continued until December, with the Yugoslav government retaining control of about a third of Croatia. Halfway through the Croat-Yugoslav war, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 713, calling for “a general and complete embargo on all deliveries of weapons and military equipment to Yugoslavia” (meaning rump Yugoslavia, plus Croatia and Slovenia). Although sovereign nations are normally expected to acquire and own arms, Resolution 713 redefined such weapons as “illicit” in the eyes of the U.N.
It was universally understood that the Serbs were in control of most of the Yugoslavian army’s weaponry, and that the embargo therefore left them in a position of military superiority. Conversely, even though the embargo was regularly breached, it left non-Serbs vulnerable. The U.N. had, in effect, deprived the incipient countries of the right to self-defense, a right guaranteed under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter.
Macedonia seceded peacefully from Yugoslavia in early 1992, but Bosnia-Herzegovina’s secession quickly led to a three-way civil war between Bosnian Muslims (“Bosniacs”), Serbs (who are Orthodox), and Croats (who are Roman Catholic). The Bosnian Serbs received substantial military support from what remained of old Yugoslavia (consisting of Serbia and Montenegro, and under the control of Slobodan Milosevic).
Security Council Resolution 713 now operated to make it illegal for the new Bosnian government to acquire arms to defend itself from Yugoslav aggression.
The Bosnian Muslims were told by the U.N. that they didn’t need weapons of their own; instead, they would have immediate access to the upper echelons of U.N. and NATO “peacekeeping” forces. As noted in U.N. documents, Bosnia-Herzegovina president Izetbegovic “was in favour of the UNPROFOR [United Nations Protection Force] proposal, which, as he understood it, meant that the Bosniacs would hand their weapons over to UNPROFOR in return for UNPROFOR protection.”
The Bosniacs subverted the U.N. arms embargo, by importing arms from Arab countries while the U.S. winked. At the same time, the Bosniacs also tried to play the part of good guys, under the theory that they would garner more territory in the long run by being the party that did what the U.N. said. Not until 1995 did the Bosniacs begin to achieve arms parity with the Serbs — and it was the prospect of impending parity that convinced the Serbs to make a final grand offensive, to acquire as much territory as possible before losing their military advantage altogether. Srebenica was one result of the final Serb offensive.
The other policy that proved disastrous was the creation of “safe areas” pursuant to Resolution 819, which was adopted by the Security Council in April 1993. Safe areas were “regions, which should preferably be substantially free of conflict beforehand, where refugees could be offered a ‘reasonable degree of security’ by a brigade of peacekeeping troops.” The concept of a “safe area,” however, was a pacifist fantasy, with little resemblance to the reality on the ground. Even the U.N. forces were not safe; they couldn’t even protect themselves, let alone anyone else. In fact, they were taken hostage, casually, at will, without resistance — sometimes in hundreds at a time. These U.N. hostages would then be used by the Bosnian Serbs to deter the U.N. and NATO from taking more aggressive action.
While the U.N. peacekeepers had collected some of the Bosniacs’ weapons, the Bosniacs retained the better ones. With those weapons, they attacked Bosnian Serb villages and civilians, returning afterwards to Bosniac “safe areas.” Each successive raid left the Serbs more infuriated. The U.N. was aware of these raids, and was aware that the Bosniacs had sequestered some weapons; but it took no steps to ensure the safety of Bosnian Serb civilians.
By the summer of 1995, the population of Srebrenica, a designated safe area, had swelled with refugees. By the time of the massacre, it was an island of Bosniacs in Bosnian Serb territory — an island the U.N. had sworn to protect.
But the U.N. would not honor its pledge. As the BBC later reported, “A former United Nations commander in Bosnia has told a Dutch parliamentary inquiry into the Srebrenica massacre that it was clear to him that Dutch authorities would not sacrifice its soldiers for the enclave.”
And, indeed, on July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces entered Srebrenica without resistance from Bosniac or U.N. forces; not a shot was fired. (The Bosniac general in Srebrenica had recently been recalled by his government, leaving the Bosniac forces leaderless.) Ethnic cleansing and genocide followed. The men and boys were separated from the women, then taken away and shot.
Knowing that remaining in the U.N. “safe area” would mean certain death, some 10,000 to 15,000 Bosniac males fled into the surrounding forests, escaping to the Bosniac-held town of Tuzla. Only about 3,000 to 4,000 were armed, mostly with hunting rifles; these were the men who survived what has since become known as the six-day “Marathon of Death.” And the rest? Laura Silber and Allan Little, in their book Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, describe the slaughter in the forest:
Some were killed after having surrendered, believing the UN would protect them . . . Serb soldiers, some even dressed as UN peace-keepers driving stolen white UN vehicles, would guarantee the Muslims’ safety. Then they would shoot.
In this way, over 7,500 men and boys were killed.
Three months after the massacre at Srebrenica — lightning speed for the U.N. — a unanimous Security Council rescinded its arms embargo against the nations of the former Yugoslavia.
The U.N. Convention on genocide, adopted in 1948, makes “complicity in genocide” a punishable act. The U.N.’s reflexive attempt at disarmament prior to the massacre at Srebrenica might convincingly be argued to fulfill the definition of complicity: “a state of being an accomplice; partnership in wrongdoing.” (American College Dictionary, Random House, 1967 ed.) Even if not legally complicit, the U.N. undeniably functioned as a facilitator of genocide.
And the U.N. can hardly claim ignorance of Serb intent. Prior to Srebrenica, the international body had knowledge of other mass killings committed by the Serbs against the Bosniacs between 1991 and 1994. One of the largest of these occurred in April 1992 in the town of Bratunac, just outside Srebrenica. There, approximately 350 Bosnian Muslims were tortured and killed by Serb paramilitaries and special police.
Given that the U.N. was fully aware of Milosevic’s designs for a “Greater Serbia” (incorporating portions of Bosnia), and that the U.N. was fully aware of the disparity in military capabilities between Milosevic and his intended victims, the U.N. had every responsibility to defend the Muslims; if the U.N. itself could not, it at least had a duty to withdraw the arms embargo immediately and allow Bosnia’s Muslims to defend themselves.
Nor can the U.N. claim ignorance of what happens when victims are abandoned to their oppressors. The Srebrenica scenario is reminiscent of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when promises by the U.N. to protect Rwandan civilians proved just as empty. There, too, U.N. personnel knew that the victim groups had been previously disarmed — in this case, by laws enacted in 1964 and 1979. Early on in the genocide, thousands of Rwandan civilians gathered in areas where U.N. troops had been stationed, thinking they would be protected. They weren’t. If the Rwandans had known that the U.N. troops would withdraw, they would have fled, and some might have survived. “The manner in which troops left, including attempts to pretend to the refugees that they were not in fact leaving, was disgraceful,” an independent report later concluded.
In short, the U.N. was aware of Milosevic’s propensity for ethnic cleansing, and had ample reason to know that its actions would create a situation ripe for genocide. The atrocities at Srebrenica could not have been perpetrated by the Serbs on such a grand scale had not the U.N. and its policies first prepared an enclave of victims, most of them disarmed.
Radislav Krstic has already been sentenced to jail, and the trial of Slobodan Milosevic is proceeding at the Hague — yet upper-echelon U.N. policymakers have escaped accountability for their role in the tragedy. Kofi Annan, who had served during this period as undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, was presented with the Nobel Peace prize on December 10, 2001; he should have been indicted. Likewise unscathed is Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who presided as secretary general at the time of the Srebrenica massacre.
In 1998, three years after the Srebrenica massacre, Kofi Annan offered an apology:
The United Nations . . . failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder . . . In the end, the only meaningful and lasting amends we can make to the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina who put their faith in the international community is to do our utmost not to allow such horrors to recur. When the international community makes a solemn promise to safeguard and protect innocent civilians from massacre, then it must be willing to back its promise with the necessary means. Otherwise, it is surely better not to raise hopes and expectations in the first place, and not to impede whatever capability they may be able to muster in their own defense.
Just months after this show of contrition, Kofi Annan and the U.N. were back at work preventing prospective genocide victims from defending themselves. This time, the victims were the people of East Timor. Left unprotected because their firearms had been sequestered at the behest of the U.N., the Timorese were attacked by the Indonesian military.
The fraud of U.N. “protection” was underscored yet again in May 2000. As Dennis Jett explains in Why Peacekeeping Fails, Sierra Leone “nearly became the UN’s biggest peacekeeping debacle” when 500 peacekeepers there were taken hostage by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The RUF has been described by Human Rights Watch as a “barbarous group of thugs,” who “lived off the country’s rich diamond fields and terrorized the population with its signature atrocity of chopping off arms and hands of men, women and often children.”
Jett continues: “The RUF troops are unspeakably brutal to civilians, but will not stand up to any determined military force. Yet the UN peacekeepers, with few exceptions, handed over their weapons including armored personnel carriers and meekly became prisoners.” It was only the deployment of Britain’s troops to the former colony that saved civilian lives and averted a “complete U.N. defeat.”
It would be difficult to find an organization whose work has facilitated government mass murder of more people, in more diverse locations around the world, than the United Nations has in the last decade. And the U.N.’s current campaign to disarm the world’s peoples suggests that the genocides of the previous decade are to be repeated in many other places in the years to come.
An e-mail from one of our readers encapsulates the horrific consequences of the U.N.’s program to disarm non-state actors:
In 1999 I spent a year with the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. I was stationed in the former “safe” area Gorazde. I learned a lot about that war and how the civilians were massacred. One day we were discussing guns and private ownership. In response to the statement that the U.N. believes only the police and military should have guns, a Bosnian exasperatedly asked: “Who do you think slaughtered everyone?
(For those interested in reading more, we recommend the following books: David Rohde, End Game; Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia; Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both, Srebrenica; John Hillen, Blue Helmets; Dennis C. Jett, Why Peacekeeping Fails.)
— Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant, and Joanne Eisen write from the Independence Institute.