Bosnia, Rwanda, and UN Peacekeeping

The Dutch government recently resigned after an official report implicated Dutch UN peacekeepers in the 1995 massacre of Bosnians in Srebrenica, considered one of the worst atrocities of the Bosnian War. The report, prepared by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, stated that Dutch U.N. troops in Srebrenica faced an impossible task. But the Dutch report also concluded that the Dutch peacekeepers were to blame for turning over the U.N.-declared safe zone to Serb forces. After capturing Srebrenica, the Serbs took away up to 8,000 civilian Muslim men and boys. International war crimes prosecutors and humanitarian groups say the Serbs massacred the Muslims in one of the most serious atrocities in Europe since World War II.

The Dutch failure in Srebrenica reflects the fundamental flaws in the U.N.’s approach to peacekeeping. The 750-strong battalion of Dutch peacekeepers was deployed to defend a U.N.-declared “safe haven” in the midst of a Serb effort to exterminate the Muslim population from the areas that the Serbs wanted to annex into a “greater Serbia.” The Dutch troops were lightly armed with armored personnel carriers, antitank guns, and machine guns. Given the situation into which the U.N. peacekeepers had been deployed, and the heavy weaponry employed by the Bosnian Serbs, including tanks and artillery, both heavier weaponry and increased numbers of troops should have been deployed if the U.N. were serious about the mission.

The U.N. had disarmed Bosnian forces in 1993 as part of a ceasefire arrangement. But, as so often happens in this type of conflict, only one side was disarmed. When Serb forces attacked the Srebrenica area in 1996, the Bosnian forces asked that their weapons be returned. The Dutch peacekeepers refused because “it was UNPROFOR’s responsibility to defend the enclave, and not theirs.” Ironically, UNPROFOR stands for UN “Protection” Force (protection of what against whom, one wonders). As the Serb attack continued, the Dutch peacekeepers surrendered at every opportunity to the Serb attackers. At the time the Serbs captured Srebrenica, the Dutch battalion had not fired a single shot at the Bosnian Serbs.

The Dutch battalion commander in Srebrenica requested air support from NATO. But the UNPROFOR headquarters in Sarajevo refused on five separate occasions relay the request to NATO. An initial air attack by NATO aircraft was conducted after the Serbs had captured the town. But he Serbs had seized 400 UN peacekeepers from around Sarajevo and threatened to kill them if the air attacks continued. So, the UN told NATO to stop the air strikes.

The remaining Dutch forces by then had retreated to their headquarters post outside Srebrenica, where 5000 Bosnians took refuge. The Dutch blocked an additional 15,000 refugees from entering the camp. The Dutch forces then proceeded to hand the refugees over to the Serbs. The Serbs separated the men and boys from the women and shot them.

On the surface, the Srebrenica debacle appears to have resulted from appalling cowardice on the part of the Dutch peacekeepers. However, on closer review, the cowardice was on the part of the UNPROFOR and Dutch leadership rather than the soldiers themselves. If ordered to stand and fight, the outgunned Dutch soldiers would no doubt have fought to the last man. But the simple a massacre of Dutch soldiers probably would not have happened because the Serbs would have backed off rather than kill 1100 peacekeepers. However, the UNPROFOR headquarters and the Dutch government (which was involved in the operational decisions during the capture of Srebrenica), did not want to risk losing 1100 soldiers, and chose instead to hand over 8,000 Bosnian civilians to face death.

This issue of institutional cowardice on the part of the U.N. is not new. In 1967, UN Secretary General U Thant withdrew peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula in the face of threats by Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser. U Thant’s cowardice allowed Nasser to send troops into the Sinai in violation of the 1956 ceasefire and block Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba to Israel’s southern port of Eilat, which in turn led to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

More recently, the U.N. was implicated in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The UN had been warned by the man in charge of the UN’s Rwandan peacekeeping force, Canadian general Romeo D’Allaire, that Hutu extremists were preparing for genocide. The UN had 2,000 peacekeepers on duty in Rwanda in 1994. But as the killings began UN troops were ordered to withdraw. Between April and June in 1994, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists.

As a peacekeeper, D’Allaire was told to remain impartial and not to take sides during the genocide. He was ordered by U.N. headquarters to negotiate with the Hutu leaders who were sanctioning the killings. D’Allaire reflected afterward, “How can I negotiate with a person who’s just finished slashing and hacking people? How do I plead with him? How come I didn’t take my pistol and blow a hole right in the middle of his forehead?” Canadian journalist Carol Off said of the Rwanda genocide, “The worst the United Nations has done is to create something they call ‘moral equivalency’ … to pretend both sides are equal.”

The fundamental problem with U.N. peacekeeping is that it leads to a false sense of security. This false sense of security is why the Bosnians agreed to be disarmed. This false sense of security is why the Israelis agreed to withdraw from the Sinai in 1956. When the U.N. fails to provide that security, the results have often been catastrophic. Thus, in both Rwanda and Bosnia, the result has been worse than if the U.N. hadn’t been there in the first place.

Is the answer, then, to strengthen U.N. peacekeepers and give them a clear mandate, along with the weapons to carry it out? Hardly, because the U.N. is hardly a bastion of clear moral thinking. The last UN Secretary General from a democratic country was Austria’s Kurt Waldheim, who left office in 1981, and he was a Nazi war criminal. If forced to decide between good and evil, the U.N. is about as likely to choose to support the evil as the good.

The “moral equivalency” issue has resurfaced in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which the world pretends that Palestinian terrorism and suicide bombings are morally equivalent to Israel maintaining settlements in the disputed territories. But the U.N. is already shifting to regard the terrorists as the good and the victims as evil.

The Dutch government resigned to face responsibility for their role in the Srebrenica debacle. But at the U.N., the man who was in charge of both the Rwanda and Bosnian operations was promoted to be the world body’s secretary general. Kofi Annan is now pushing for deployment of U.N peacekeepers to Israel. U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon were implicated in the kidnapping and subsequent murder of 3 Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah terrorists last year. So don’t expect U.N. peacekeepers to keep the peace in Israel. Instead, Annan and his peacekeepers will operate as they did at Srebrenica.

The peacekeepers will turn a blind eye while Palestinian terrorists pass by on their way to blowing up Israelis in restaurants and hotels and shooting children in their beds. Then they will try to stop Israel from fighting back. That’s the lesson to learn from U.N. peacekeeping in Bosnia.