It is almost axiomatic in warfare that the first reports are always wrong. Researching the Cuban missile crisis, I was startled by the erroneous intelligence reaching President Kennedy about Soviet actions and intentions. Fortunately, the former U.S. Navy lieutenant had a skeptical, questioning mind ("the military always screws up" was a favorite expression), or we might have ended up in a nuclear war.
Lyndon Johnson ordered his fateful escalation of the Vietnam war in August 1964 on the basis of mistaken reports claiming that North Vietnam had attacked U.S. Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. More recently, we all know what happened when George W. Bush acted upon deeply flawed intelligence claims of weapons of mass destruction supposedly possessed by Saddam Hussein.
When it comes to genocide and mass atrocities, policy-makers often believe what they want to believe -- using erroneous intelligence either to build a case for military intervention or to justify a passive, hands-off approach. Let me illustrate what I mean by focusing on the false reporting of a single incident immediately prior to the capture of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic. In this case, the faulty intel was to have deadly consequences for the Muslim population of the so-called "safe area."
Shortly after dawn on July 10, a United Nations armored personnel carrier protecting the approaches to the "safe area" came under fire., causing it to skid off the mountain road. A Dutchbat officer, Captain Peter Hageman, reported at 0713 that he had been attacked by the Muslim defenders of Srebrenica who were in the area. He filed a report which went all the way up the UNPROFOR chain of command, first to Zagreb and then to New York.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
The Srebrenica massacre offers a prime example of the dangers of what can be called a "feel good response" to mass atrocity. By a "feel good response," I mean action that is designed to look good in the eyes of international public opinion but fails to do anything really effective to protect a threatened population. A feel good response can often wind up making a tragic situation even worse -- as was the case in Srebrenica, where around 7,000 Muslims became the victims of pre-meditated mass murder in July 1995.
Examples of such empty moralism abound -- from Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur to Syria.
To explain what I mean, let me review the history of the establishment of the so-called United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica as a result of Security Council resolution 819, adopted on April 16, 1993. The resolution represented the response of the United States and Security Council members to the public outrage engendered by a widely publicized visit to Srebrenica the previous month by General Philippe Morillon of France. The photograph above shows the charismatic U.N. general being besieged by a crowd of Muslim refugees as he tried to leave the town on March 12. Here is a YouTube clip:
A key question for anyone interested in genocide prevention is whether outside intervention can make a difference. In order to address this question, it is necessary to study the mindset of the perpetrators of mass atrocities. Thanks to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, we now have a lot of evidence about the Bosnian Serb decision-making process that led to the capture of the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica and the murder of around 7,000 Muslim men and boys.
According to Bosnian Serb military documents, and testimony from key participants, General Ratko Mladic did not initially intend to capture the town of Srebrenica when he launched his attack on the enclave on July 6, 1995. His initial goal was to reduce the enclave to its urban core and create "an unbearable situation" for Srebrenica inhabitants, forcing them to leave of their own accord. Meeting no effective resistance from either Dutchbat or the Muslim defenders of Srebrenica, he went for the big prize.
It is now possible to pinpoint the "tipping point" when everything changed: the evening of July 9. A written message was submitted for approval to Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic by a Mladic aide at 23:50 hours on July 9 ordering the final "takeover of Srebrenica". Mladic ordered his forces to move forward the following day, July 10, capturing a U.N. armored personnel carrier as you can see in the photograph at the top of this post. The "safe area" fell on July 11.
The Dutch have rightly come under a lot of criticism for their failure to prevent Europe's worst massacre since World War II in Srebrenica. Apart from a token air strike against Bosnian Serb troops described in my last post, Dutch peacekeepers did not offer any significant resistance to the takeover of the United Nations "safe area" in July 1995. They permitted General Ratko Mladic to forcibly separate Muslim men and boys from their families outside Dutchbat headquarters in Potocari. To put the matter very bluntly, they were bystanders to a terrible atrocity.
On the other hand, it seems unfair that a single Dutch peacekeeping battalion should become a scapegoat for the much broader failures of the international community. Many of the decisions, non-decisions, or fudged decisions that led to the Srebrenica tragedy were taken long before July 1995, at a variety of political and military levels, right up to the United Nations Security Council in New York and the White House in Washington, DC.
The Dutchbat commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Thom Karremans, (photographed above with Mladic) may have been the wrong man for the job, as I described in a previous post. But the evidence shows that he and his men were put in an almost impossible position. They were ordered to protect a "safe area" inhabited by some 40,000 Muslim refugees -- but they were not given the resources and political support they needed to accomplish their mission.
By way of illustration, let me review the history of the week preceding the fall of the "safe area." The record shows that Dutchbat requested close air support on six separate occasions -- but their calls for assistance were denied or simply ignored by their UN superiors. Since the peacekeepers themselves were only lightly armed, NATO air power represented their only means of effective defense.
The bureaucratic procedure for requesting air support was extraordinarily cumbersome. Requests were first submitted to Sector North East headquarters in Tuzla, then to the Bosnia-Herzegovina command in Sarajevo. If Sarajevo approved the request, it was then forwarded to the Crisis Action Team in Zagreb, by which time up to three hours might have been lost. Since peacekeeping was a joint UN-NATO operation, all requests were subject to a so-called "dual key." A military bureaucrat anywhere along the line could delay or even block a request for air support from the Srebrenica peacekeepers because it was submitted on "the wrong form."
A blow-by-blow chronology of air support requests from Dutchbat, with links to sources (Dutch and United Nations reports):
First request. July 6, 13:50. This request from Karremans was prompted by the shelling of the U.N. compound at Potocari by Mladic's forces, and preliminary incursions into the "safe area." Forwarded to Sarajevo by Sector North East, but turned down by Dutch general (Kees Nicolai) as premature.
It is not entirely true that the Dutch put up no resistance against the Bosnian Serbs prior to their capture of the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. The Dutchbat commander, Colonel Thom Karremans, called for close air support on five different occasions between July 6 and July 11. His first four requests were turned down by his U.N. superiors for a variety of bureaucratic reasons.
Then, at literally the eleventh hour, the cavalry arrived in the form of two NATO F-16 fighters flown by Dutch pilots. One of the pilots, Lieutenant Manja Blok, has since become something of a celebrity in Holland, as you can see from the magazine cover above. She aimed two bombs at a couple of Serb tanks advancing into the enclave, causing some minor damage.
"Give 'em hell" shouted the Dutch ground controller, as she dived in to release her bombs. "Good luck, girl...They are all bad guys!" (An English translation of the pilot chatter, as well as an interview with Manja Blok, is available here.)
Has Ratko Mladic had a change of heart? Since his arrest last May, and extradition to the Hague, the former Bosnian Serb commander has taken every opportunity to demonstrate his contempt for the tribunal that has charged him with "double genocide." He has refused to stand when the judge enters the courtroom and angrily denounced the tribunal as a "NATO court" that has no right to try him. In his latest pre-trial appearance today, however, he sounded a little more conciliatory.
"I would like to improve my relationship with this court," he told Dutch judge Alphons Orie, at the end of today's status conference, which was called to discuss scheduling matters prior to the start of the trial on May 14. "In [the] future, I will rise when you enter, I will bow, and will sit down when you tell me, not because I respect you so much, but because I would like to take part in this trial."
Mladic has repeatedly tussled with Orie during previous pre-trial appearances and was even thrown out of court on one occasion last year. In addition to his show of cooperation at the end of today's proceedings, he also had a long list of complaints, ranging from inadequate computer time and his demand that witnesses against him should all appear in person in the court. He alluded frequently to his medical problems on the run, including at least two strokes.
International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia
The photograph above is the iconic image of Ratko Mladic sipping wine with the commander of the Dutch peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica shortly after the fall of the United Nations "safe area" on July 11, 1995. Dutch colonel Thom Karremans apologized to Mladic for briefly opening fire in a last ditch attempt to deter the Bosnian Serb forces as they entered the enclave. He depicted himself as a humble "piano player" performing a score devised by others.
"Don't shoot the piano player," the Dutch peacekeeper pleaded, clearly hoping to lighten the atmosphere.
"You're a lousy piano player," Mladic shot back, before offering Karremans a cigarette and a drink.
It now turns out that the unfortunate Karremans was under considerable personal and psychological pressure at the time he was appointed commander of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion, or Dutchbat, in Srebrenica. According to a superior officer, General Hans Kouzy, he was in the process of a messy divorce, and was not fully focused on his military duties.
International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia
With the Mladic trial now due to start on May 14, it is time to move on to the painful question of international responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre. I am planning a series of posts on this topic, but I want to begin by asking a simple question: Who was responsible for the deaths of Ibro, Muhamed, and Nasiha Nuhanovic?
At one level, the answer is very simple. All three were killed by Bosnian Serb troops commanded by Ratko Mladic following their seizure of the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995. The forensic evidence is very compelling. Bones containing DNA samples from the three members of the Nuhanovic family have been recovered from mass graves in the Srebrenica area. They are among more than 6,600 people positively identified by war crimes investigators as Srebrenica murder victims.
At another level, the question becomes much more complicated, raising important issues of international law, morality, and human rights. At the time that it was captured, Srebrenica was an internationally recognized "safe area" under United Nations Security Council resolution 819. The United States and other western governments had committed themselves to the protection of Srebrenica civilians by deploying a Dutch peacekeeping battalion to the town to take over security duties from the Muslim defenders.
Ratko Mladic has been described as "one of those lethal combinations that history thrusts up occasionally-a charismatic murderer." What drove the Bosnian Serb military commander to order Europe's deadliest massacre since World War II? Could it have been prevented? Michael Dobbs, a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum fellow, investigates.