Michael Dobbs

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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 ...

ICTY
ICTY

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.

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.

Second request. July 8, 13:00. Prompted by further Bosnian Serb advances, capture of United Nations observation post, and death of Dutchbat peacekeeper. Blocked by Nicolai in Sarajevo, due to "sensitive negotiations" underway in Belgrade with Serb president Slobodan Milosevic. Karremans writes in his diary that he is "disappointed" and now realizes that "higher echelons" are interested only in "politics" and cannot be "bothered by a minor observation post in the Safe Area of Srebrenica."

Third request. July 10, 08:55. Prompted by attacks on Dutchbat blocking position. U.N. military observers reported on July 9 that Serb offensive may be widening because of "almost non-existent" UN response. Request shelved in Sector North East.

Fourth request. July 10, late afternoon. Prompted by Serb shelling of Srebrenica.  Refused in Zagreb by French general Bertrand Janvier because of lack of suitable target list and poor nighttime conditions.

Fifth request. July 11, 08:00. Prompted by final Serb advance into Srebrenica. Serbs now less than a mile from the town. Request shelved in Sector North East (Lieutenant-Colonel Rachid Sadiki, Pakistan) because it was submitted on the "wrong form".

Sixth request. July 11, 10:00. Prompted by rejection of previous request. Request approved by Zagreb (Janvier) but implementation delayed because aircraft have "all returned to their bases." Two Dutch F-16s (led by Lieut Manja Blok) eventually attacked a single Serb tank at 14:40, but failed to stop Serb advance into Srebrenica and fall of "safe area."

Srebrenica fell around 17:00 on July 11.  Nicolai then added insult to injury by instructing Karremans to use "all possible means" to defend Dutchbat installations and the refugees from attack, including "the use of close air support if necessary." (I believe the technical military acronym for such an order is CYA.) Karremans replied that he understood his orders but was no longer in a position to carry them out.

In my next post, I will address the question whether the more effective use of close air support could have deterred Mladic from capturing Srebrenica.

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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