The Lesson of Srebrenica

One of the advantages of a free commercial society is that it tends to habituate people to monetary transactions independent of other concerns like religion and ethnicity. Of what concern is it to me how another prays or where he came from so long as that person is willing to buy from or sell to me. After a time, this attitude is internalized and tolerance grows. In societies where governments dole out many benefits and determine the winners and losers, people tend to aggregate in groups to garner power and protection. This latter condition afflicts the Balkans.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Balkans were a cauldron of competing ethnic and religious groups. The resulting instability was one of the causes of World War I. After World War II, Marshal Tito took brutal control of Yugoslavia and through repression managed to suppress ethnic and religious violence. However, Tito never created conditions that nurtured tolerance. After Tito died, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War, all the old animosities in the Balkans could no longer be suppressed.

Srebrenica is a Muslim enclave in Bosnia that was threatened by the Serbians. In 1993, the United Nations declared Srebrenica a “safe area” where the Muslim religious minority could seek refuge. One condition of residence in the safe area was the Muslims had to relinquish their weapons. The commander of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) Philippe Morillon assured the Muslim population that “I will never abandon you.” It is not clear how assured the Muslims were by this pledge, but in retrospect they should not have been.

At the beginning of July 1995, Serbian troops began shelling Srebrenica. When Muslims in Srebrenica asked for their weapons back from UNPROFOR to defend themselves. The request was denied.

Soon after, the Bosnian Serbs increased their shelling causing even more Muslim refugees to flee into Srebrenica. As they approached Srebrenica, the Serbians captured about 30 Dutch troops that were part of UNPROFOR. Wim Dijkema, a member of the Dutch force later reported, “We were shield, a living shield between the Serbs and the refugees. I heard there were two orders: one was to `defend them,’ and the second was `we won’t allow you to bring any Dutch in body bags back home.”’

In response to Serbian assaults, the local Dutch commander requested air support. According to the BBC, the request was first denied ostensibly because it was “submitted on the wrong form.” After a resubmitted request, Dutch fighter aircraft dropped bombs on Serbian positions. The Serbians forced the Dutch to stop bombing by threatening to kill captured Dutch troops.

The Serbian commander Ratko Mladic entered Srebrenica and seized Muslim men from ages 12 to 77 for “interrogation.” After Dutch troops were released, the Dutch contingent left Srebrenica leaving their weapons behind. Shortly thereafter, 7,000 Muslim men were massacred in the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II. Systematic Serbian attacks against Muslims did not end until the United States forces under the auspices of NATO used massive airpower and the threat of ground troops to force Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to stop ethnic cleansing of Muslim in Serbian controlled areas and end its occupation of Kosovo.

The lesson to be learned from the sad story of Srebrenica is not that the United Nations is indifferent to genocide. It is not that Dutch troops are cowardly or incompetent. It is that the United Nations is superior at process and bureaucracy, useful in dealings between nations with a respect for law. But as a consequence, the UN can be faltering and ineffective in the face of determined, unscrupulous, and immoral adversaries. It is that the good intentions of Dutch troops, any troops, without resolute and strong leadership, are a weak shield against the truly evil and vicious. This history should be remembered as the United Nations attempts to disarm Saddam Hussein, a universally acknowledge tyrant responsible for the death of thousands, seeking weapons of mass destruction, and adept at exploiting the bureaucratic machinations of international organizations and the natural and admirable reluctance of democracies to engage in war.

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