External Affairs

An Indian General Recalls How the World Failed Srebrenica 20 Years Ago

The UN created the illusion of ‘safe areas’ for Bosnia’s civilians without deploying the troops needed to protect them. The result was a tragedy of monumental proportions

Remembering the Srebrenica massacre. Photo: Mikel Oibar/Flickr CC 2.0

Remembering the Srebrenica massacre. Photo: Mikel Oibar/Flickr CC 2.0

The 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide was commemorated worldwide on July 9. The United Nations Security Council observed a minute’s silence too, but a resolution condemning the 1995 massacre of 8,000 civilians in that small Bosnian town as a ‘crime of genocide’ was vetoed by Russia on the grounds that it was “politically motivated.”

The UN’s failure to recognise and properly commemorate Srebrenica is fitting, if ironic, since it failed to prevent the crime in the first place. Why and how it failed is a story in itself. As the first Force Commander and Head of Mission of the United Nations Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia from March 3, 1992 to March 2, 1993, I can speak with some authority about a small part of that tragic tale.

Official UN portrait of Lieutenant-General Satish Nambiar of India, first Commander-in-Chief of UNPROFOR, in Zagreb, 1992. Credit: UN

Official UN portrait of Lieutenant-General Satish Nambiar of India, first Commander-in-Chief of the UN Protection Force, in Zagreb, 1992. Credit: UN

Had the international community addressed the situation in the former Yugoslavia in the proper perspective, the Srebrenica  incident would never have taken place. Nor the genocide in Rwanda, where many more innocent civilians became victims. The unfortunate irony is that all too often, rhetoric and symbolism replace logic and action in the hallowed portals of the Security Council chambers.

UNPROFOR was set up in the early 1990s to deal with the situation in Croatia. Without going into the other details of the mission, let me state that by early May 1992, we were faced with the reality of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) blowing up under our noses, as it were, situated as the mission headquarters then was, in Sarajevo.

By October 1992, our headquarters had been relocated to Zagreb and there was much fighting taking place between the three communities – Muslim, Serb and Croat – in BiH. In recognition of this, the UN Security Council had tasked UNPROFOR with a number of responsibilities, including keeping Sarajevo airport open for the induction of humanitarian aid supplies. There was as yet no peacekeeping mandate for Bosnia-Herzegovina, at least not till I left the mission on March 2, 1993. To provide the ‘muscle’ for execution of the mandate of humanitarian assistance, additional contingents from France, United Kingdom, Spain, Canada, Egypt, and the Ukraine, were made available, and a sector headquarters set up in Sarajevo. With my concurrence, Phillipe Morillon , my French Deputy Force Commander and great friend and colleague, was deputed to head the forces in BiH, and replaced on my staff by an equally competent Canadian General, Robert Gaudreau.

Sometime in the third week of October 1992, I received a frantic call from Marrack Goulding, the then Under Secretary General for UN Peacekeeping, informing me that there was great pressure on the UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali and the  UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to initiate measures to declare seven areas, including Sarajevo, that were then under threat in BiH, as “safe areas”.

In response, I asked him what the perception of a “safe area” was at UN headquarters. After a minute’s silence, he candidly admitted they did not have the ‘foggiest’ idea, and asked me what my interpretation was. Without any hesitation, I gave him my military interpretation; in brief, that a “safe area” is a geographically delineated entity, which would be secured militarily all around, then cleared on the inside of all unauthorised weapons and ammunition, and entry into the area would be physically monitored by armed UN troops to ensure that no armed personnel from outside be permitted entry, nor would any weapons or lethal equipment be allowed in. That interpretation appeared to be logical enough to satisfy Marrack. He then asked me what resources I would require to implement the task of securing the seven designated “safe areas”. I said I would require at least 24 hours to work out the details in consultation with my subordinate commanders and staff.

My staff in Zagreb – which included the Deputy Head of Mission Cedric Thornberry, Deputy Force Commander, Major General Gaudreau, Chief of Staff, Danish Brigadier General Svend Harders, together with Lieutenant General Phillipe Morillon and his staff in Sarajevo led by a British Major General, Cordy Smith, and others – worked over the next 24 hours to produce an eminently workable arrangement, that I endorsed with some marginal adjustments.

The next evening (given the time difference between Zagreb and New York) when Goulding called me, I was in a position to give him a well thought out military assessment for implementing the “safe area” concept in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Responding to his query about the number of troops needed to execute the task, I said we would require an additional force of four and a half divisions (approximately 55,000 to 60,000 troops) to implement such a mandate. I imagine that he would have almost fallen off his chair in New York on hearing that.

Goulding thanked me for the response and signed off. I did not hear anything more on the subject till I left the mission on completion of my term. I had contracted to head UNPROFOR for one year and declined an offer of extension. It was, therefore, with deep regret and some consternation that I noted, after my return to India, the declaration of places like Srebrenica as “safe areas” without the deployment of the requisite number of troops.

To that extent, the genocide at Srebrenica was without doubt a failure of the international community represented by the United Nations (as was Rwanda).

A Bosnian man reinters the remains of a loved one at Srebrenica. Photo: Mikel  Oibar

A Bosnian man reinters the remains of a loved one at Srebrenica. Photo: Mikel Oibar/Flickr CC2.0

It should not surprise anyone that when IFOR forces moved into Bosnia-Herzegovina after the signing of the Dayton Agreement, their total troop strength was about 60,000. This was more or less the same force level we in UNPROFOR had said was needed  back in October 1992, that too without the cease-fire between the Bosnian parties that later came in to effect.

It is appropriate to conclude this piece by recalling what India’s Permanent Representative to the UN said in 2009 during the debate in the General Assembly on the concept of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’: “It has been India’s consistent view that the responsibility to protect its population is one of the foremost responsibilities of every state”, said Ambassador Hardeep Puri.

“Willingness to take Chapter VII measures can only be on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organisations with a specific proviso that such action should only be taken when peaceful means are inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail in discharging their duty”. In emphasising the need to be realistic he further stated, “We do not live in an ideal world and therefore need to be cognisant that creation of new norms should at the same time completely safeguard against their misuse. In this context, responsibility to protect should in no way provide a pretext for humanitarian intervention or unilateral action.”

He concluded thus:

“Even a cursory examination of reasons for non-action by the UN, specially the Security Council, reveals that in respect of the tragic events that were witnessed by the entire world, non-action was not due to lack of warning, resources or the barrier of state sovereignty, but because of strategic, political or economic considerations of those on whom the present international architecture had placed the onus to act. The key aspect, therefore, is to address the issue of willingness to act, in which context a necessary ingredient is real reform of the decision making bodies in the UN like the Security Council in its permanent membership”

Six years later, and two decades on from the Srebrenica massacre, those words continue to ring true.

Lt Gen Satish Nambiar (Retd) is a former officer of the Indian Army and former Force Commander of UNPROFOR

  • Dharam Raj Singh

    Had those 60,000 troops been made available in 1992 perhaps the tragedy of Bosnia-Herzegovina could have been minimized. Great inputs though.