Public Lecture - 28 May 2015 - Sarajevo BiH - Gallery 11/07/95

The International Community and Srebrenica

Florence Hartmann

author and independent researcher


The subject that I want to discuss - the international community - would be easier to grasp after Robert Donia’s talk. This is, in a way, the big picture, after the presentation of Jean Rene Ruez.

Overall, I will talk about the period before the fall of Srebrenica.

According to the international community, the blindness of senior United Nations officials caused inertia in the enclave’s system of protection and thereby its fall. This is how the international community has summarized the reasons for the fall of Srebrenica.

The UN report published in 1999 said, and I quote: “the logical consequence of the shortcomings of the UN force, the structural flaws of its mandate and of the definition of “safe area”, as well as shortcomings and misjudgment within the UN’s military chain of command,” caused the enclave’s fall.

Reading this statement, one can notice that there is a certain discomfort, that the international community maybe shouldn’t have made a commitment to protect the enclaves, not only Srebrenica, but also the most isolated enclaves in the Drina valley, such as Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde, because they were the most vulnerable. The history of these small enclaves’ protection - there were six safe areas, of which these three were in the East - began very badly.
With Resolution 819, adopted on April 16, 1993, the UN Security Council declared Srebrenica the first safe area. At that moment, the international community was acting hastily and ambivalently under pressure from the public, who demanded putting a stop to the crimes in the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had begun a year earlier, in 1992.

In the process of preparing the final text of Resolution 819 on Srebrenica there was a lot of negotiating, as usual with most resolutions. There was a big discussion on terminology, i.e. whether to choose the term “protected area” as a legally relevant term. Or should it be called a “safe area”, which involved fewer legal obligations. Eventually, the term “safe area” was adopted.

In these circumstances, in 1993, Resolution 819 is passed. Serb forces in Bosnia are trying to occupy Srebrenica. However, this territory under siege in the Drina valley is saved at the last moment by the intervention of General Philippe Morillon, commander of the peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time. This is a brief summary, because it is much more complicated, but this is what it boils down to. Visiting the enclave in 1993, he promised that the population would not be abandoned. Why did he do that? The Srebrenica enclave was much larger than Srebrenica in 1995. There was also Konjevic Polje, several places shown here and against which, at that time, in 1993, the Serb forces had launched an onslaught that ended up in reducing the enclave significantly.

Morillon comes to Srebrenica in March. Cerska and Konjevic Polje have already fallen.

General Morillon personally takes the initiative and makes a promise. There weren’t 15,000 phone calls, so this is an individual initiative, so to speak. The footage of General Morillon in Srebrenica is broadcast all around the world. At that time there was still the “CNN effect” as the Americans and the Pentagon call it. We are still in the 1990s when the media was in a way still creating policy, through emotions, information and public reactions.

Under such pressure, the international community is compelled to urgently respond in some manner. The response would not be military, but such that the Srebrenica enclave would become a protected area.

This was also decided because one mission got a mandate from the Security Council to assess the situation on the ground. This is still 1993. The resolution was passed in April. Members of this mission wrote in their report that “a slow motion genocide is under way in the region.” Therefore, if the Bosnian Serb army continued its offensive, it could cause an enormous humanitarian crisis.

Diego Arria, one of the well-known members, the Venezuelan ambassador to the Security Council, testified several times before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

This mission’s report indicates a fear of bloodshed if the Serb forces were to capture the enclave.

It must be said that Srebrenica, as Robert Donia said, was a target of Serb nationalists from the outset of the war. The control of the Drina valley, a wide corridor, was one of their strategic objectives. The documents and intercepted conversations show that, at the request of the Belgrade regime, of Milosevic, a 30 mile corridor was to be set up on the other side of the Drina to erase the river as a border.

The ethnic cleansing process was in force from the outset of the war, from the spring of 1992. A large part of this territory was cleansed of non-Serbs, mostly Bosniaks or Slavic Muslims, and this goal was achieved. Hundreds of thousands of people were deported from eastern Bosnia, down the Drina valley. Some 20,000 people were killed at that time in a swift ethnic cleansing campaign in the first months of the war. There were only three pockets left where the surviving Bosniak population took refuge, around Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde.

So, on April 16, 1993, the great powers had no choice but to promise to protect the surviving population. It is important to recall the intercepted phone conversations. I’m not sure when they became publicly available, but in any case they have been available since December 2014, since Mladic’s trial. Perhaps they were used earlier, but I’m not sure. In any case, in 2014, during the trial, the intercepted telephone conversations, which were not publicly known, were revealed at the hearing and they showed that Mladic ordered the Drina Corps officers to take Srebrenica and kill the men on April 16, 1993, the same the day the great powers met in New York.

This hearing at the Mladic trial was held on December 1, 2014.

After placing Srebrenica under UN protection, on May 6, 1993, five other enclaves were also protected, including Zepa and Gorazde in eastern Bosnia, and peacekeepers were deployed there.

With Resolution 836 of June 4, 1993, this protection was reinforced with the authorization to use force. The texts stated, “in reply to bombardments against the safe areas by any of the parties” all six, not just Srebrenica, “in reply to bombardments, or to armed incursion, or in the event of any deliberate obstruction in or around those areas to the freedom of movement of UNPROFOR” - that in such cases NATO could be called in.

In April 1994, when General Mladic’s army was trying to take one of these enclaves, Gorazde, as the largest of the three in the Drina valley, NATO began its air strikes and stopped the progression of Mladic’s forces. Faced with the determination of the great powers, Mladic’s forces postponed their plan to finish the takeover of eastern Bosnia.

In the same period, in 1994, the Europeans, Russians and Americans assembled in the Contact Group, which was formed at that time, in 1994, and presented a new peace plan, after several others that had not been realized. At the negotiating table a new peace plan was presented and it proposed the preservation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which its neighbors wanted to destroy, to obliterate it as a state. Therefore, the international position was to preserve Bosnia and Herzegovina within its internationally recognized borders of 1992, with an internal division of the territory: 51% to Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, and the remaining 49% of the territory going to Bosnian Serbs.

However, this proposal was rejected by the Bosnian Serbs and the diplomatic process reached a stalemate.

This standstill lasted till the following year. Then comes 1995.The international community is growing impatient: the conflict began in ‘92, the issue is still not resolved, there is some progress but not enough. The French and the British, the major UN troop contributing countries, with more than a third of all UN forces throughout the former Yugoslavia, warned that their soldiers would not spend another winter in the former Yugoslavia under these conditions and with a peacekeeping mandate in a country at war.

At their request, NATO prepared a possible plan for the UN forces’ withdrawal. Therefore, with no peace agreement, UNPROFOR would start packing their bags in the fall to finish the withdrawal before the winter.

In these circumstances everyone was eager to end the conflict; the Europeans, whose troops had spent more than three years in the Balkan quagmire, but also the Americans, who at the time were not as involved but who needed to provide 20,000 soldiers for this large-scale operation of UNPROFOR’s withdrawal, because that would be a NATO operation.
However, President Clinton was planning a second term in 1996, and he wanted to avoid sending his troops to Europe, let alone to a humiliating and disastrous operation that would symbolize the failure of the West if the UN forces were to pull out and leave the conflict to escalate without international forces.

In June 1995 one of Bill Clinton’s advisers said something which illustrates this position: “The prospects for diplomatic progress could disappear if the peace agreement requires waiting for the Bosnian Serb leaders to accept the Contact Group plan as a starting point for negotiations.”

So everyone feels that the situation is such that it is possible and urgently needed to make a last attempt to compel the different parties to come to the negotiating table and reach an agreement.

Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia, who is providing logistical and political support to the Serb forces in Croatia and Bosnia, fears that the 1994 peace plan could be less favorable for the Serbs, if they continue to oppose it. In mid-1995, he is showing that he is ready for a political solution, unlike Karadzic and the Bosnian Serb leaders. Only he wants to cash in on his mediation to force the Bosnian Serb leaders to accept the plan which they previously refused.

So Milosevic agrees to the 49/51 partition plan but he is asking for the eastern Bosnian enclaves, since they are protruding out of the Bosniak-Croat entity, almost cutting the other entity in two.

So Milosevic makes it clear that he wants the eastern enclaves in order to win the consent of the Serbs and sign the peace settlement.

Members of the Contact Group now considered these three enclaves as obstacles to attaining peace and the Bosniaks were supposed to exchange them for the parts of Sarajevo controlled by Serb forces.

Between April, May and June the negotiations are in progress. The fighting and shelling begin again in late winter, already in March and April. In May there was the shelling of Sarajevo, which was also a safe area, and NATO reacts. After this response by NATO, the Serb forces capture 350 UN peacekeepers. This situation shows what difficulties the Europeans are facing to maintain a peacekeeping force on the ground, and the NATO bombing is temporarily suspended at this period until the hostages are released.

In June, the Serbian forces concentrated their troops around Srebrenica. This period is extremely difficult. On the one hand, Mladic’s forces are preparing an offensive on Srebrenica. On the other, international officials are negotiating the release of 350 hostages.

The offensive on Srebrenica begins on July 6, and there won’t be any NATO air strikes till the end.

However, the Dutch commander in Srebrenica repeatedly asked NATO for air support, without which he was unable to defend the enclave. But one thing is rarely mentioned. From late May, when the hostages were taken, UN generals were no longer authorized to approve NATO air strikes. In late May, this authority is assigned to the UN Secretary-General in New York and his representative in the Balkans, the Japanese diplomat Yasushi Akashi. This authority was previously in the hands of the military command. From late May to late July, the power to authorize air strikes was given to UN political leaders. UN military commanders in the former Yugoslavia could only recommend air strikes, but could not authorize them.
This special measure, adopted in late May, was in force up to the conference in London, in July 95. And when the Japanese diplomat, the first in line who could authorize NATO airstrikes, deigned to return from Dubrovnik to his office on July 11, it was too late for the airstrikes to stop General Mladic’s forces, as the enclave had already fallen.

Serb forces were already in Srebrenica. The international community considered the option but eventually decided not to organize the evacuation of the population in the enclave, some 40,000 people, as we said.

By the force of things, this evacuation was left to Mladic. One more reason nothing was done is because the negotiations on the peace process were in progress in Belgrade with the Contact Group representative, Carl Bildt.

When it became clear that the safe area Srebrenica had become the scene of mass crimes, their scale was still unknown, but already on July 14 there was some information, very precise, from field reports from the UN military observers, the Dutch battalion, the UNHCR or other international bodies. It was known that there were thousands of missing persons and that some of them were most likely victims of crime, except that the scale of the crime was unknown.

Despite this information, the following week, on July 24 or 25, the international community did not prevent the fall of another enclave, Zepa, the smallest one.

The third enclave, Gorazde, would not be abandoned. The taking of Gorazde was prevented by the international community’s serious threats of air strikes, and so it was saved.

I will finish by quoting a report. This quote is aimed at showing that the synthesis that I made regarding the role of the international community was not my personal view. The UN report reads that “states in the Security Council and the Contact Group must accept their share of responsibility for allowing these tragic events to happen.”

Also, in 2001, a report of the French Parliamentary Investigating Commission, which examined the events in Srebrenica, says that states, especially the major powers in 1995, made a choice, and I quote, “to simplify diplomatic negotiations by clarifying the ethnic map of Bosnia and Herzegovina”. The French report then concludes: “None of the countries involved in resolving the Bosnian conflict wanted to save Srebrenica, which does not imply the existence of a conspiracy”.

Florence Hartmann, France
An author and independent researcher, Florence Hartmann started her carriers at the French daily Le Monde for which she covered the war in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as its permanent correspondent. In 1999, she published in France a political biography of Slobodan Milosevic, Milosevic, la diagonale du fou (Denoël/Gallimard) in which she revealed how Belgrade strong man was involved in the war and the crimes committed in Serbia’s neighbouring countries. In 2000, she left Le Monde in Paris to become the ICTY/ICTR chief prosecutor‘s spokesperson and Balkan advisor under the mandate of Carla Del Ponte. In 2007 a year after she left The Hague, she published a second book on the rivalry between international justice and international politics, entitled Paix et Châtiment (Flammarion). Since, she is an independent researcher and a conference speaker on issue pertaining to the Balkans, transitional justice, human rights and democratization processes. In 2014, she published a book on whistleblowers (Lanceurs d'alerte, les mauvaises consciences de nos démocraties). She is a member of the Humanitarian Law Centre executive board, a Belgrade based NGO dealing with war crimes documentation and transitional justice.