What my dad’s experience in Bosnia taught me: Srebrenica 25 years on
After Iraq and Libya, the concept of protection may seem tainted – but this weekend’s anniversary is a vital reminder that a policy of concerted inaction can have equally disastrous results.
My dad was one of those people who always did what he wanted.
In his personal life, it caused a lot of pain to a lot of people. But in his working life, it made him an irrepressible force, whatever obstacles were put in his way.
No surprise then that the United Nations sent him to Yugoslavia in 1992, as the former federal republic descended into bitter conflict. As deputy chief of the UN Mission, he sought to broker talks between the warring parties, and protect minority groups from the threat of ethnic cleansing.
But it was an increasingly fraught and fruitless task, especially in the newly-independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Muslim communities found themselves besieged and attacked by Serb militias, supported by the Yugoslav army.
The UN designated six of these besieged areas as so-called “safe havens”, where Muslims were supposed to enjoy the protection of the international community. But in the largest of these, Sarajevo, the daily sniping and shelling by Serb forces made a mockery of the UN’s efforts.
When my Dad visited London, or spoke to me on the phone, I started to hear tones in his voice that I had never heard before from this supremely confident and assured man: frustration and anger; anxiety and stress; helplessness and despair.
In October 1992, he and his colleagues warned the UN hierarchy in New York that a minimum force of 60,000 peacekeeping troops would be needed to properly defend the six “safe havens”. But no-one listened, or if they did, they could not persuade global leaders to act.
The following June, after the Serbs bombed a football match in Sarajevo, killing 11 people, including four children, my Dad warned again that “we are terribly thin on the ground”, and blamed governments around the world for not providing the numbers of troops required.
“In peacekeeping”, he said, “without credibility – you are dead.”
He was moved out of Bosnia a year later, still furious about how poorly-defended the UN’s “safe havens” were, and deeply fearful of what would happen when the Serbs attacked them, not from a distance with shells and snipers, but through ground assaults.
Nothing changed. And when the butchers rolled into Srebrenica 25 years ago this week, there were still just a few hundred Dutch soldiers in place to deter them, who saw they were massively outnumbered, and turned their backs as the genocide began.
People still argue today that those Dutch peacekeepers should feel ashamed, but I know how my dad would respond: that the real shame lies not with them, but with the governments and leaders around the world who thought that a few hundred soldiers were enough.
It lies with all those in the international community who heard his warnings growing louder each year and saw the forces surrounding Srebrenica growing larger each month, but still sat on their hands and failed to act, until it was too late.
Coming just a year after the Rwandan genocide, the glaring failures in Srebrenica prompted a round of soul-searching at the UN and beyond. As a result, the international community was quicker to intervene with sufficient force in Kosovo in 1998, and – led by the UK – in Sierra Leone in 2000.
Behind those dramatic scenes, legal and diplomatic experts formulated a new theory – “The Responsibility to Protect” – to underpin the sequence of actions required to stop a Rwanda or a Srebrenica happening again, including – as a last resort – effective military intervention.
But then came 9/11, and the doctrines of preventive war, regime change and nation-building. When major powers thereafter invoked Responsibility to Protect, it was all too readily seen – from Iraq to Libya – as a pretext for their real, reckless agenda.
For many individuals whose politics were shaped in that era, intervention became a tainted concept, and understandably so. But this week’s anniversary is a vital reminder that a policy of concerted inaction can have equally disastrous results.
Instead, we must always be willing to apply the full historical perspective and ask ourselves: are we avoiding another Iraq, or allowing another Srebrenica? Will this proposed intervention turn out like Libya, or like Sierra Leone?
Those are not easy debates, as we have regularly found over Syria, but they are preferable to an approach where the answers are predetermined in one direction or the other by ideology.
The original 2001 “Responsibility to Protect” report is the best framework I have seen to guide those debates and reach the right decisions, and I believe it is high time that we remembered why it was developed, and make sure it is revived as part of our renewal of a rules-based world order.
After all, when evil people commit acts of genocide – when they slaughter innocent men, women and children just because of their ethnicity, race or religion – it is easy to shake our heads and ask: “How could they do it?”
But my dad’s experience in Bosnia taught me that, for politicians all around the world, the only question that ultimately matters is: “How could we let them?”
How could we fail in the responsibility to protect the lives of innocent people, even those in Srebrenica, to whom we had promised that their town would be a “safe haven”?
And how can we make sure that we never fail in that responsibility again, the next time we are warned that hundreds, thousands or even millions of lives are at risk?