Monday, July 17, 2006

Is the UN a War Criminal?

On Friday, the BBC reported that seven Bosnian Serb officers have been put on trial at The Hague for their roles in the 1995 massacre of approximately 7-8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. As a bit of background, during the Bosnian conflict that followed the splintering of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Srebrenica was declared a "safe area" by the United Nations in a resolution stating that "all parties and others concerned treat Srebrenica and its surroundings as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act". However, despite UN protection, in July 1995, Bosnian Serbs entered the town, and began slaughtering the residents. While it is good to see the perpetrators of the massacre facing justice (although I remain skeptical of the ability of international tribunals to provide good-quality justice), it leads me to ask whether the UN itself doesn't bear a large share of responsibility here.

According to the Human Rights Watch report on the massacre, "United Nations peacekeeping officials were unwilling to heed requests for support from their own forces stationed within [Srebrenica], thus allowing Bosnian Serb forces to easily overrun it and—without interference from U.N. soldiers—to carry out systematic, mass executions of hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilian men and boys and to terrorize, rape, beat, execute, rob and otherwise abuse civilians being deported from the area." Furthermore, the report (the full version of which is not available on-line, but can be ordered through the above link) castigates the UN for "the craven decisions of its field commanders prior to the fall of Srebrenica, its apparent suppression and destruction of evidence of massive human rights abuses immediately after the fall of the 'safe area.'" The report also calls out Dutch Defense Ministry’s "destruction of a video tape showing Bosnian Serb soldiers engaged in extrajudicial executions as Dutch U.N. troops looked on." [Note: the UN troops "protecting" Srebrenica were Dutch.]

A UN report on the massacre determined that the UN indeed shares blame for the killings, blaming the UN for setting up the safe area without credible and effective means of defense and for declaring that force (applied by NATO) would only be used against the Bosnian Serbs as a "last resort." In 2002, the Dutch government resigned as a result of its attempt to cover-up the role (or lack thereof) of Dutch peacekeepers in allowing the Serbs to enter the city.

It's bad enough when the international community stands back and refuses to protect innocents from slaughter, as in Rwanda or Darfur. But when the UN gathers people together in order to protect them, only to refuse to provide sufficient force to do so, and then stands back and allows those people to be massacred, raped, tortured, and otherwise brutalized, that's a different matter entirely. That rises to the level of a war crime. The Dutch officers, politicians, and UN bureaucrats responsible for the failure of the UN at Srebrenica should join the Bosnian Serb officers in the dock at the Hague. They're war criminals, plain and simple.


Antiquated Tory said...

Well, surely there is some difference between 'murder' and 'criminal negligence.' Does the latter constitute a war crime under any current conventions on such?

Antiquated Tory said...

Well, surely there is a difference between murder and criminal negligence. Is the latter a war crime under any current convention on such? And where exactly would you draw the line? Is France guilty of it re. the Rwanda massacres? The US in Lebanon (or would it be an accessory)?

Seth Weinberger said...

True, there's a difference between murder and negilegence, even criminal negligence. But the UN needs to be accountable for its actions. Another perfect example: the UN soldiers killed last week in Lebanon. The UN allowed its peacekeepers/observers to remain in Lebanon, despite being unarmed and incapable of keeping Hezbollah from sheltering near the UN posts. Or, the bombing of the UN compound in the early days of the Iraq occupation: the UN had been warned of threats and urged to upgrade its security, but refused for fear of sending the wrong message.

Who paid the price for the UN's abject failure in Bosnia? Who bears the responsibility for gathering Muslims in Srebrenica, only to abandon them to the Serbs? Again, I'm not claiming that negligence or apathy should always be seen as criminal, but in this case, it must.