With a wave of his hand on Wednesday morning, Russian United Nations Ambassador Vitaly Churkin sent the U.N. Security Council back in time.

He raised his hand to veto a resolution that uses the term “genocide” to describe the mass killing of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in the town of Srebrenica 20 years ago this month. Churkin argued this would promote division in the former Yugoslavia.

The veto was the latest example of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wide-scale efforts to contort history, play on Slavic nationalism, and defy the West. Serbian officials praised Moscow for preventing “an attempt of smearing the entire Serbian nation as genocidal.”

For U.N. officials, the veto had a more painful meaning. Twenty years after the United Nations peacekeeping missions in Rwanda and Bosnia failed to stop two genocides, the world body is still struggling with how to enforce its most basic mandate: protecting civilians.

With a record 60 million refugees worldwide and a bitter U.S.-Russian divide on the Security Council, protecting civilians is more daunting for the United Nations than it was in the 1990s.

And there are increasing concerns, even among senior U.N. officials, that the lessons of the past are being ignored by a divided Security Council. The United Nations has recently sent peacekeepers on dangerous missions in Mali and Congo—but without the vital resources and political support they need.

A plaque bearing the number of victims killed during the Srebrenica massacre (Dado Ruvic / Reuters)

“We have very naively gone into northern Mali,” said one senior U.N. official who asked not to be named, “into a very non-permissive environment, without understanding the implications.” He warned the result would be “lots of U.N. peacekeepers killed … an ignominious withdrawal and total mission failure.”

A week before Wednesday’s Security Council meeting, three dozen veterans of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia had gathered in a sun-dappled conference room at The Hague. The goal was to look for lessons for current policymakers.

The organizers—the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and The Hague Institute for Global Justice—hoped that privacy and the passage of time could foster candor.

It did. In two daylong private meetings and one public panel, diplomats, generals, and government officials admitted their mistakes in Srebrenica. They also sought to grapple with a record number of peacekeeping missions. Today, at a cost of $8 billion a year, 100,000 peacekeepers serve in 16 different operations worldwide.

“The key crime should not be trying,” said Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister who served as the European Union’s special envoy to the former Yugoslavia. “The key crime should actually be staying home and not even trying.”

Srebrenica, though, showed how a flawed international effort can sometimes make things worse. The mass killings occurred after U.N. peacekeepers stripped the surrounded town’s Bosnian Muslim defenders of their heavy weapons and promised to protect its roughly 40,000 inhabitants. The peacekeepers declared Srebrenica a demilitarized U.N. “safe area.” Five other besieged cities in Bosnia —including Sarajevo—were also declared U.N. safe areas.

For the next two years, Srebrenica functioned essentially as a vast, open-air prison, according to Bosnian Muslim and Dutch peacekeepers who participated in the conference. The Dutch forces were unable to stop the continuing low-level military clashes.

By the time the Serbs attacked the enclave in July 1995, it was defended by only 450 Dutch peacekeepers with light arms, little fuel, and expired ammunition. A month before the attack, the Dutch commander reported to his superiors that his unit was no longer militarily operational.

Initially, Bosnian Serb forces attacked the enclave to shrink its size, according to Bosnian Serb military documents obtained by war-crimes prosecutors. As Serb forces approached the town, a central unsolved mystery of the war in Bosnia unfolded.

Following orders from the top U.N. military commander in Bosnia, a group of lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers set up a blocking position just outside the town. A direct attack on the peacekeepers, the Dutch were told, would trigger immediate close-air support from North Atlantic Treaty Organization planes circling nearby.

Once the Dutch came under fire, they formally requested NATO air support. But the top U.N. commander, French General Bernard Janvier, rejected the request.

For the past two decades, Janvier’s decision has been the focus of controversy and conspiracy theories. Bosnians and many others insist that French, American, and British officials intentionally allowed Srebrenica to fall because it made dividing the country easier.

The officials at the conference, who had worked with Janvier, said the general probably decided to reject the request himself. Janvier sincerely believed, they said, that air attacks would fail to stop the Serb advance, though they would succeed in infuriating Serb commanders and potentially make the situation worse.

The following day, July 11, 1995, Srebrenica fell to Serb forces. Emboldened by his easy victory, General Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, expelled 25,000 women and children from the town. His forces hunted down roughly 15,000 Bosnian Muslim men who had tried to escape to safe haven in central Bosnia.

A plaque bearing names of the victims of the Srebenica massacre (Dado Ruvic / Reuters)

Mladic’s forces summarily executed an estimated 6,000 prisoners. (Mladic is now on trial for war crimes in The Hague, after avoiding capture for 15 years.)

Displaying the vagaries of human memory, participants in last week’s meeting at The Hague had created narratives that primarily blamed other groups—not their own—for the tragedy.

United Nations officials blamed the United States, France, and Britain for creating the “safe areas” but then failing to deploy enough troops to defend them. The Dutch blamed Janvier for blocking their close air support request. According to his former colleagues, Janvier blamed the Dutch for not fighting the Serbs more intensely on the ground. Bosnians, in turn, blamed all the foreigners.

In the end, the consensus among the officials at the meeting was that many different governments, organizations and groups failed the people of Srebrenica. The press among them. At the time, I was covering the conflict for the Christian Science Monitor. But I was so convinced the fighting was stalemated that I was on vacation when the town fell.

In hindsight, the people of Srebrenica were the victims of a conspiracy of neglect, half-measures, and incompetence. U.S., European, and Bosnian officials never provided enough resources to protect Srebrenica.

Individual mistakes added to the calamity, particularly Janvier’s failure to approve NATO air support.

The views I most wanted to hear were those of Rupert Smith, a widely respected former British U.N. commander. After Srebrenica fell, Smith’s support for the use of sweeping NATO military power was credited with helping end the war in Bosnia. His book about this, The Utility of Force, received wide acclaim.

Smith argued that the most critical element in international action was decisiveness.

He is right. The most important lesson of Srebrenica is that half-measures can do far more harm than good. And Russia’s veto suggests that more division and half measures are likely to come.


This post appears courtesy of Reuters.