Following our current intervention in Libya, a polarised argument has developed between those who favour intervention by the major powers in local and intra-state conflicts and those who argue that the consequences of such interventions are rarely beneficial.
One of the examples of a successful intervention frequently posited by those on the first side of the argument is the UN intervention in the Balkans. However a couple of developments in the last week have refocussed attention on what has become a somewhat tarnished narrative. Firstly, there was the beginning of the war crimes trial of Ratko Mladić and this was then followed by the decision of a Dutch court that their own state was responsible for the deaths of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.
The UN tactics in Bosnia were to intervene with as light a touch as possible. When the Bosnian Muslims began to flee the onslaught of the Serb army, the appalling initial humanitarian response of the neighbouring EU Countries was…… to close their borders. At the time Sadako Ogata, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, pointed out to them that “if you take these people, you are an accomplice to ethnic cleansing. If you don’t, you are an accomplice to murder”.
The “solution” to this conundrum was to establish six “safe havens” within Bosnia- areas in which the UN guaranteed the Muslims would be secure. A few troops with blue helmets were put on the ground and the hope was that the Serbian army would decide that there was no need to pick a fight with the UN, who had superior air power, and would pass by the enclaves.
That hope was dashed in Srebrenica.
The Commander of UN troops, General Bernard Janvier had been openly hostile to the enclaves policy and there is strong suspicion that he personally decided to allow Srebrenica to be overrun in order to make his case. He repeatedly denied requests from the Dutchbat commander Thom Karremans for air strikes against the advancing Serb forces. Unbelievably, on one occasion, the request was denied because it had been submitted on the “wrong form”. When the Serbs arrived in Srebrenica around 15,000 Bosnian Muslims fled through the mountains but many stayed, assured by the UN statements that they were safe, and more than 20,000 refugees fled to the main Dutch base at Potocari.
When Mladić arrived at Potocari he was accompanied by Serb camera crews. He summoned Colonel Karremans to a meeting at which he delivered an ultimatum that the Muslims must hand over their weapons to guarantee their lives. The Dutch peacekeepers were subsequently ordered to hand over all the Potocari refugees and the beatings began even before they had all cleared the compound. In return, the Serbs released fourteen UN troops they had previously taken hostage and Mladić sent leaving gifts to Karremans. The women and children were bussed to Muslim territory and the killings of all males over twelve years of age began.
Mladić is clearly a criminal but he is now joined in the dock by the Dutch state and there is an argument that the United Nations, itself, should be there too. Because the massacre at Srebrenica was both the foreseeable consequence of a mass of geopolitical factors and a demonstration of cowardly and unprincipled behaviour by the individuals involved.
So my point is that the Balkan conflict was not, as has been alleged, a great advertisement for interventionism and the notion that there is a moral high ground to justify such action is disingenuous. Like individuals, nation states tend to act in their own economic and security interests, so let’s be honest with ourselves – Mladić is only in the Hague because Serbia wants to join the EU and we are currently bombing Libya for our own purposes.
And the dead of Srebrenica should continue to haunt the consciences of us all.