Missteps that led to a tragedy

I will be in the Hague on Wednesday for the long-awaited start of the Mladic trial, almost seventeen years after he was first indicted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. While we wait to hear the prosecutor’s opening statement, let’s take a look at some more "roads not taken" during the run-up to the Srebrenica ...

PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images

I will be in the Hague on Wednesday for the long-awaited start of the Mladic trial, almost seventeen years after he was first indicted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. While we wait to hear the prosecutor's opening statement, let's take a look at some more "roads not taken" during the run-up to the Srebrenica tragedy of July 1995, which features prominently in the Mladic indictment.

While primary responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre certainly rests with the Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Mladic, the international community also played a role through a series of diplomatic missteps. Here are three more key moments, selected by the former United Nations civil affairs official, David Harland, that led directly to Europe's worst massacre since World War II.

For three earlier decision points, click here.

I will be in the Hague on Wednesday for the long-awaited start of the Mladic trial, almost seventeen years after he was first indicted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. While we wait to hear the prosecutor’s opening statement, let’s take a look at some more "roads not taken" during the run-up to the Srebrenica tragedy of July 1995, which features prominently in the Mladic indictment.

While primary responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre certainly rests with the Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Mladic, the international community also played a role through a series of diplomatic missteps. Here are three more key moments, selected by the former United Nations civil affairs official, David Harland, that led directly to Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.

For three earlier decision points, click here.

Key Moment 4. The Bosnian government’s decision to block the evacuation of Srebrenica in April 1993. On April 2, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees reported to the Security Council that non-combatants were "desperate to escape to safety because they see no other prospect than death if they remain where they are." On instructions from the Bosnian government, the Muslim commander in Sarajevo, Nasir Oric, prevented the evacuation of refugees on the grounds that it would pave the way for the takeover of Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serbs, and would facilitate their policy of "ethnic cleansing." A convoy of United Nations trucks was forced to leave the enclave without any refugees on board. Ironically, Oric himself left Srebrenica in April 1995, three months before the town fell.

Key moment 5. On April 16, 1993, the Security Council adopted resolution 917 declaring Srebrenica a "safe area." Subsequent resolutions authorized the dispatch of a lightly-armed peacekeeping battalion to the enclave, but failed to provide it with sufficient fire power to deter the Serbs. One UN commander, General Francis Briquemont of Belgium, commented that he had stopped reading United Nations resolutions due to the "fantastic gap" between rhetoric and reality. Security Council members, led by the United States, never resolved this fatal contradiction.

Key moment 6. Adoption of rules of engagement for close air support of United Nations peacekeepers in August 1994. U.N. commanders opposed the adoption of a tripwire arrangement for launching air strikes for violation of the safe area regime, preferring a doctrine of strategic ambiguity. They argued that such clear guidelines would encourage the Serbs to launch smaller-scale attacks that did not automatically trigger air strikes. In the event, the absence of red lines permitted U.N. officials to delay authorization of air strikes until it was far too late.

With hindsight, it seems clear that the Srebrenica massacre was a preventable tragedy. Different actions by key actors — western governments, the United Nations, the Bosnian government — could have produced a different outcome.

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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