Anatomy of a Peacekeeping Mission: Srebrenica Revisited

Former Dutch peacekeepers visit a memorial center for Srebrenica victims in Potocari on Oct. 17. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

In 1995, 8,000 Bosnian civilians were summarily executed as a result of the United Nations' (U.N.) failure to protect the Srebrenica "safe area" in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War. Twelve years after the tragedy, the Srebrenica massacre retains its significance because it has cast a shadow on the viability of international law and organizations.

Significantly, the fall of the U.N.-declared Srebrenica safe area and its aftermath have undermined the purpose and principles of the organization. The U.N. Charter has been described by the secretary-general as encompassing the three interconnected objectives: the quest for peace; the protection of human life; and the rejection of a culture of death

Why did the U.N. fail to protect the Srebrenica safe area? What transpired at various levels of the command chain between the Dutch battalion (Dutchbat) commander's first verbal request of close air support to his immediate superior, and the ultimate victory of the Serbian Army five days later? Evidence suggests that U.N.'s inability to deal with the crisis in Srebrenica stems from structural rather than technical problems.


On July 11, 1995 the Dutchbat commander of the U.N.-protected Srebrenica safe area transmitted a report to his superiors at the U.N. and the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) leadership, in which he described the extreme vulnerability of the situation and pleaded urgently for support:

"I am responsible for these people [yet] I am not able to defend these people; defend my own battalion; find suitable representatives among the civilians because the official authorities are for certain reasons not available; find representatives among the military authorities because they are trying to fight for a corridor to the Tuzla area, and will not show up anyway because of purely personal reasons; manage to force ARBiH troops to hand-over their weapons... In my opinion there is one way out — negotiations today at the highest level; UNSG, highest national authorities and both Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Government."

"Negotiation at the highest level" never materialized. The same day, the Srebrenica safe area fell. Two days later, on July 14, mass executions commenced. Under the "watchful eye" of the UNPROFOR, the Serbian Army summarily executed the majority of the 20,000 Bosnian civilians who had taken refuge in the enclave.

The U.N.'s apparent failure to deal with the crisis and its aftermath has grave humanitarian, legal, political and philosophical implications. On the humanitarian level, the international community still owes an explanation to thousands of families who have lost their loved ones. The case has deep legal implications, as it has raised questions about the viability of international law upon which the U.N. has been founded:

"The peoples of the United Nations are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" (The Charter Preamble), and the purpose of the United Nations is "to maintain international peace and security" and "to take collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats." (Ch. I, Art. 1).

Disconnection in the Chain of Command

Why did the U.N. fail to protect the Srebrenica safe area? What transpired at various levels of the command chain between the Dutchbat commander's first verbal request of close air support to his immediate superior, and the ultimate victory of the Serbian Army five days later?

During the five short days of Serbian insurgence and aggression, the bureaucratic complex of the U.N. functioned as a serious impediment to the enforcement of peace. The reaction of high-level officials to the U.N. administration during the crucial days of the massacre reveals communication gaps in the chain of command. Many senior officials expressed their frustration before, during and after the crisis, because they felt they could not influence the decision-making mechanism.

For example, the U.N. Chief of Staff, a Dutch General, defended his position by arguing that he could not understand the logic of calling off the NATO attack on Serbs: "Zagreb gives this idiotic order for a blocking position," he said. "Then they have a meeting for several hours, and then they call it off. The position was designed to attract fire, and it did."

On a more fundamental level, a major factor that contributed to the alienation in the U.N. chain of command was the systematic disconnection between the higher and lower ranks. The rigid, one-way upward hierarchy between the Dutch peacekeepers (Srebrenica), the O.P. Foxtrot commander (Srebrenica), the Dutchbat commander (Srebrenica), the commander of Sector Northeast (Tuzla), the UNPROFOR commander (Bosnia and Herzegovina), the UNPROFOR Force commander (Zagreb), the U.N. special representative in the Former Yugoslavia and the U.N. secretary-general offers at least some explanation as to why communication did not prove to be as smooth and straightforward as the situation demanded. For example, when the Dutchbat commander requested close air support to defend the safe area, he was totally unaware of the fact that his request never reached U.N.P.F. Headquarters in Zagreb because it had been discouraged further down the chain of command.

Similarly, the two reports written by the Dutchbat commander do not seem to have reached the U.N. leadership, either. As a result, the leadership was oblivious of something that the commander had known all along: "My battalion is no longer willing, able and in the position to consider itself as being impartial due to the... policy of the Bosnian-Serb government and the BSA. This long-lasting and severe situation is no longer acceptable for the soldiers. Therefore, it is my strongest opinion that this Bosnian-Serb government should be blamed for it in the full extent as well as for the consequences in the future."

The continuous clash between and within U.N.'s political and military bodies appears to be another factor that contributed to the failure to deal with the conflict. The acute disconnection was exacerbated by sharp disagreements between the UNPROFOR commander in Bosnia and Herzegovina Gen. Rupert Smith and the UNPROFOR Force commander Gen. Bertrand Janvier.

A Fantastic Gap

Disagreements among high-ranking officials and a disconnection between the higher and lower ranks were but two aspects of the problem. All these seemingly minor obstacles stemmed from a much deeper problem — the inability of U.N.'s political and military leadership to harmonize the organization's mission in the Balkans and the scope of the threat.

From the onset, the military arm of the U.N. mission in the Balkans, UNPROFOR, was aware of the gap between the U.N. mandate and the means to achieve the stated goals. By contrast, the cluster of bureaucrats that constituted the leadership (whose battleground was the Security Council) was unwilling to admit that such a gap existed.

This unrealistic attitude is vividly captured in the report of the then-commander of UNPROFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In December 1993, two years before the massacre, he complained that his "mission had been beset by a 'fantastic gap' between the resolutions of the Security Council, the will to execute these resolutions, and the means available to commanders in the field," and added that he had "stopped reading Security Council resolutions."

This so-called fantastic gap was nothing less than a separation between what the U.N., as the largest global distributor of justice was supposed to do, and what it could realistically achieve. Specifically, it resulted from the conflict between two concepts — peacekeeping and peace enforcement. This issue would determine the outcome of the entire mission.

The U.N. mandate was a decisive factor that contributed, perhaps more than Serbian ambitions, to the fall of the Srebrenica safe area. It was applied with surgical technical accuracy by the U.N. bureaucrats, to the extent that no one in leadership, including the secretary-general, was willing to redefine it. The mandate was largely defined by Resolutions 819 (April, 1993); 824 (May, 1993); and 836 (June, 1993).

Resolution 819 outlined the U.N. mandate as peacekeeping, and not peace enforcement. Because "peacekeeping and the use of force should be seen as two alternative techniques and not as adjacent points on a continuum," the leadership was reluctant to redefine the ultimate goal of the mission. The mandate demanded that all parties to the conflict should treat Srebrenica and its surroundings as a safe area.

The aforementioned Resolution cites Chapter VII. of the U.N. Charter, which requires that the Security Council "may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security." However, it limits the mandate of the U.N. to the delivery of humanitarian aid and freedom of movement. An obvious weakness of the resolutions was that they invoked Chapter VII, but did not specify what this implied in terms of UNPROFOR operations.

In contrast, UNPROFOR was realistic about the limits of undertaking a successful peacekeeping operation in the absence of peaceful conditions. The then-UNPROFOR Force commander opposed the concept of establishing safe areas unless there was an agreement between the belligerents. He argued that, "protecting the safe areas was a job of combat-capable, peace-enforcement operation."

From a strictly technical perspective, UNPROFOR did accomplish its mission in the sense that it limited its mission to peacekeeping in accordance with the U.N. mandate. Moreover, UNPROFOR commanders warned the U.N. leadership on several occasions that the condition on the ground could only be solved by peace enforcement, and not peacekeeping. The military arm was left virtually in the middle of nowhere, a solitary voice in the woods, when the Security Council refused to heed their repeated, at times desperate, warnings.

The Security Council, the secretary-general and the special representative failed to reach a consensus to tailor the U.N. mandate from peacekeeping to peace enforcement, maintaining that it was technically impossible. Formal legalism triumphed over universal law. The result was a limited and largely irrelevant mandate that guarded the U.N. peacekeepers, but ignored the beneficiaries of justice.


Despite its claims to universal justice, the formal character of U.N.'s bureaucracy negatively affected the outcome of UNPROFOR's mission to protect the Srebrenica safe area. As such, it raised questions as to the applicability of universal law and international justice. The rift between U.N.'s disastrous performance in the Srebrenica safe area and the idealistic substance of the U.N. Charter evokes Ernst Haas' observation that U.N.'s "incremental growth" has given way to "turbulent non-growth."

Renowned sociologist Max Weber warned half a century ago that the odds favor the ultimate victory of bureaucracy, where the technical man prevails over the man of culture. His premonition may already have come true.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Leman Canturk.