IHT - A Valuable UN Apology, but Nations Were Mainly at Fault

By William Pfaff - Los Angeles Times Syndicate - 1999-11-22

PARIS - Institutions are not ordinarily given to examinations of conscience. Nor do they often make apologies to those they have failed. Thus, release by the United Nationsof results of an internal investigation of its July 1995 conduct at Srebrenica, in Bosnia, was remarkable.

It was the more so because Kofi Annan, the current UN secretary general, was head of the Bosnian peacekeeping operation at the time of the Bosnian war, and in the direct chain of command that so tragically failed Srebrenica.

Boutros Boutros Ghali was then UN secretary-general; the peacekeepers ultimately acted under Security Council direction. But the UN peacekeeping staff provided the Security Council and the Secretariat with information and advice on which those bodies acted. The release of this report is evidence of Mr. Annan's personal courage.

The report acknowledges that the United Nations bears a heavy responsibility for the worst mass murder of civilians in Europe since the end of World War II. Some 10,000 Muslims were murdered or remain missing as a consequence of the fall of Srebrenica, which the United Nations had guaranteed as a safe area.

The report admits that the UN command and peacekeeping force refused to admit the threat to the Muslims; appeased Bosnian Serb leadership by refusing to allow air support for the outnumbered Dutch peacekeeping battalion supposedly protecting Srebrenica's people; and refused to release sequestered weapons for the Bosnians to use to defend themselves. The Dutch battalion made no effort to protect the townspeople. The United States would not give satellite intelligence to the United Nations.

Mr. Annan is quoted in the report saying: The United Nations ''gave the Security Council the impression that the situation was under control. ... The day before Srebrenica fell, we reported that the Serbs were not attacking, when they were. We reported that the Bosnians had fired on Unprofor blocking positions, when it was the Serbs. We failed to mention urgent requests for airpower.''

The report concludes that ''through error, misjudgment and an inability to recognize the scope of evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.'' It is a handsome apology, if useless to the murdered. It must surely provoke changed attitudes and bureaucratic practices in the UN peacekeeping apparatus. It vindicates what the press and engaged observers of the Bosnian situation were desperately saying at the time.

The report admits that the principle of impartial intervention was false. There was an aggressor side and a victim side. The United Nations refused to admit that this was so.

But so did the European governments. They did so because choosing sides would have provoked domestic political trouble. It would also have transformed what was held to be an affair in which an essentially technical, ''neutral'' response was appropriate into one in which political and moral judgments had to be made and acted upon.

The report concludes that this was wrong. ''In Bosnia and in Kosovo, the international community tried to reach a negotiated solution with an unscrupulous and murderous regime. In both instances, it required the use of force to bring a halt to the planned and systematic killing and expulsion of civilians.''

This is true. But could the United Nations have used force in 1992, when Bosnian independence was declared and the war began? I think not. The initial political situation was not one of clear-cut rights and wrongs.

International opinion turned against the Serbs chiefly because of the unrestrained brutality they displayed in seizing as much of Bosnia as possible, and expelling Muslim civilians. Their pitiless siege of Sarajevo and deliberate destruction of its institutions of Muslim culture and religion mobilized international support for the Bosnians.

Even then it was difficult to find Security Council support for UN military intervention. It was only after Srebrenica fell, and after the Serbs arrogantly took UN troops hostage, that the Europeans became willing to act. The French government ordered its troops to strike back at the Serbs. The British, Dutch and French reinforced the UN force with artillery and heavy mortars. They finally accepted American arguments for air intervention. But that was at the end of the ordeal.

Each of these was a national decision. Again in Kosovo, national governments, acting through NATO, had to decide to intervene. The Security Council was not brought in because military intervention would have been vetoed.

Kofi Annan said in September that ''unless the Security Council is restored to its preeminent position as the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force, we are on a dangerous path to anarchy.'' He is mistaken. That was the path we were on when the United Nations failed Srebrenica.

Nations have moral existence. The ''international community'' does not. Nations remain the ultimate agents of moral conscience.

International Herald Tribune.


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