Michael Dobbs

A war that could have been prevented

A war that could have been prevented

One of the first witnesses in the Mladic trial, which opens in the Hague next Wednesday, will be David Harland, who was chief of United Nations civil affairs in Bosnia at the time of the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995. A New Zealander who now heads the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, Harland was also the principal author of the 1999 United Nations report on Srebrenica, which painted a devastating picture of bungling by the international community.

Harland has thought a lot about the political and diplomatic missteps that led to the fall of the former United Nations "safe area" and has frequently lectured about the subject. He provided me with a list of key "decision points" dating back to 1991, when different actions by the international community might have saved tens of thousands of lives.

Several of the fateful "decision points" cited by Harland relate to the chaotic final days prior to the fall of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. I have reviewed several of these missed opportunities in previous posts looking at the failure of United Nations commanders to approve requests from the beleaguered Dutch peacekeeping battalion for close air support.  Here I will go back to the early days of the conflict, which obviously represented the best chance for western governments to prevent the downward spiral into violence.

Harland comments that it is probable that "many more people would be alive today" had any of the following decisions "gone the other way."

Key Moment 1. The visit by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to Belgrade in June 1991. Baker failed to lay down clear guidelines for the breakup of Yugoslavia and later told associates that the United States had "got no dog in this fight." Critics believe that his detached approach — at a time when Washington was focused on the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union — gave at least an "orange light" to Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to use violence against Slovenia and Croatia to prevent them declaring independence.

Key Moment 2. In August 1991, the European Union established a group of experts known as the Badinter commission to provide legal advice on the breakup of Yugoslavia. The commission ruled that the borders of Croatia, Bosnia, and the other republics were inviolate and could not be changed simply because a minority wished to secede. Harland points out that this decision had the effect of stranding "two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics." Whatever the legal rights and wrongs of this decision — which have been much debated — it was a fateful moment that set the stage for rebellions by the Serb populations of Croatia and Bosnia.

Key Moment 3. On March 18, 1992, Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic announced his support for an agreement negotiated in Lisbon dividing Bosnia into Muslim, Serb, and Croatian autonomous districts. He withdrew his signature 10 days later following a meeting with U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman, and called instead for a referendum on Bosnian independence. War broke out in early April. Some historians argue that the Lisbon agreement represented a lost opportunity to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Bosnia conflict similar to the 1995 Dayton agreement — without three years of war and more than 100,000 deaths. Zimmerman’s role is disputed, but it is clear that the United States did not throw its weight behind the Lisbon agreement.

With hindsight, it seems likely that history could have taken a very different turn had western leaders made different decisions in the 1991-1992 period. The challenge, as Harland points out, is identifying these fateful moments at the time — rather than two decades later.

I will look at other key moments in the run up to the Srebrenica tragedy in a subsequent post. And I will be in the Hague next week for the opening of the Mladic trial on Wednesday.