bosnia report
No. 14 February - March 1996
The Institution that Saw no Evil
by David Rieff

Only two months after the replacement of UNPROFOR, the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, by IFOR, the 60,000-strong NATO-led army deployed in the wake of the Dayton peace agreement, traces of the UN military presence are already hard to find. A few white-painted trucks and armoured personnel carriers not yet restored to their original martial green and a few tattered blue flags and logos are almost all that remains of an operation whose passing virtually no one in Bosnia and few even inside the UN itself speak of with anything except relief. Peace may have come to Bosnia, however belatedly and provisionally, but that is no thanks to the UN or its peacekeeping operation. On the contrary, the lesson of Bosnia seems to be that peacekeeping, touted by the UN secretariat as recently as five years go as one of the principal means of ensuring international order, is probably morally bankrupt and certainly an idea whose time has passed.

And yet UN officials, both on the ground in the former Yugoslavia and within the secretariat and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, continue to console themselves with the belief that in Bosnia the UN sacrificed itself as the whipping boy of the international community. After the siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern European history, and the mass murders of Srebrenica, it may seem astonishing that they continue to hew to this line. That they do so nonetheless is eloquent testimony to the fact that Bosnia was the place where the world organization definitely lost its moral compass. For to have behaved as the UN did in Bosnia, as if the moral principles on which its legitimacy rests were luxuries that, opeÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌàrationally, it could not afford, is a disgrace from which the UN may not recover, or deserve to recover. And yet it is important to understand the reasoning behind the disgrace, if only to forewarn the citizens of some city yet to be condemned to martyrdom of the destiny that befell Sarajevo, Srebrenica and countless other Bosnian towns when UN peace-keepers were deployed there.

There were so many motivations for why the United Nations acted as it did. The institution was the great powers' fig leaf, and those who served it in the former Yugoslavia were right to resent that fact. But their humiliation over the use to which peacekeeping was put clouded their judgement. Apart from Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and former Polish premier none - from Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on down - dared to speak frankly: to state that the mission was impossible and it was time to get out. And because they did not say this openly for a host of reasons - a Secretary-General who wanted to be re-elected and could not risk the ire of any of the permanent five members of the Security Council; subordinates for whom public dissent was unthinkable; a bureaucracy that historically has had as little tolerance for dissent as the Roman Catholic Church; the prospect of losing a good, tax-free job - they instead twisted the truth so that they could justify what they had done and what they had refused to do or even to say.

There was one moment, in the late fall of 1994, when peacekeeping officials did engage in a debate about what they should do next. This was just after the UN and responded to a combined Croatian Serb and Bosnian Serb attack on the Bihac pocket by calling in NATO air strikes. The Serbs had responded by taking hundreds of peacekeepers hostage. At that point Shashi Tharoor, the peacekeeping official with day-to-day responsibilities in New York for the former Yugoslavia, wrote a confidential memo to Yasushi Akashi and to Kofi Annan (head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations) questioning UNPROFOR's viability. 'The arguments we have always used in favour of the continuation of UNPROFOR,' he wrote, are 'on the strategic level, that it alleviates the consequences of the conflict, limits the war from spilling beyond the borders of the former Yugoslavia, and helps create conditions that facilitate the work of the negotiators; on the tactical level, that its deployment and method of work (through daily co-operation with the parties) gets humanitarian aid through, saves lives, prevents worse excesses, and is preferable to any alternative.' The problem, Tharoor added, was that 'recent Serb actions have served to undermine that case.' Tharoor insisted that he was offering his memo on the future of UNPROFOR 'in a spirit of devil's advocacy,' but for once a peacekeeping official was facing the actual situation squarely. If, Tharoor argued, the pattern of the Serbs blocking humanitarian aid and detaining, harassing and sometimes targeting UN personnel continued, it would render UNPROFOR's mission 'unviable, and remove the arguments in favour of working with the co-operation of the Serbs'.

In his memo, Tharoor reluctantly recommends that UNPROFOR take a harder line with the Serbs. Supplying blue helmets and needy civilians with or without the Serbs' consent, he argues, even if such actions entail calling in NATO air strikes, is 'the only option available compatible with UNPROFOR's self-respect.' The conclusion is all the more remarkable because, until this memo was written, Tharoor, who was widely regarded as one of the UN's most brilliant younger officials, had firmly rejected any calls to end the UN's policy of co-operation with the Serbs. But he now argued that unless the UN took strong action, 'we may be doomed to watch helplessly as the United Nations suffers further obstruction and harassment and our hand is forced by events beyond our control, involving either an unavoidable NATO air strike or US action on the arms embargo.'

What Tharoor predicted iÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌàn fact took place. But his memorandum was rejected, and he himself took the matter no further. Indeed, when his memo was leaked and he was unexpectedly confronted with his arguments by ABC's Peter Jennings, Tharoor insisted that he had written them in a period when things had looked very bleak but that, in the interim, they had improved. They had, at the time that Tharoor taped his conversation, but a few months later they would deteriorate again. By the time the ceasefire brokered by ex-president Carter collapsed in the spring of 1995, the Serbs had closed Sarajevo airport and, even before the mass murder in Srebrenica, the UN was again being humiliated and prevented from fulfilling its mission along the Serb-Bosnian government confrontation lines. UNPROFOR and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations were again refusing to face the reality that Tharoor's memo had briefly explored.

Institutionally, this was probably inevitable. To have acted differently, independently, would have flown in the face of the UN's bureaucratic tradition, which is one of abject subservience to the wishes of the permanent five members of the Security Council. But if the UN rejected the insights it could have drawn at any time about the real nature of its mission in Bosnia, it did so in equal measure because of an ingrained sense of its own special virtue. One of the more curious features of the United Nations is that its officials often talk about it as if it were a Church. More than a few UN officials, like officials of the major humanitarian relief organizations, would by temperament likely have been missionaries a century ago. Mark Cutts, the Anglo-Argentinian chief of the UNHCR in Sarajevo in 1995, told me once: 'I went to Durham University intending to be a missionary like my father. I left an agnostic. What I do believe in is the United Nations.

Cutts was anything but an anomaly. In Bosnia, as in most UN operations, it was common in private to hear UN officials utter matter-of-factly that curious phrase, 'I believe in the United Nations', as if that clinched the matter. Certainly it helps explain why, from the outset, it was so difficult for UN officials to accept the idea that the Bosnian disaster could be even in part their fault. For them, such a charge was not only wrong in fact, but was what in philosophy is known as a category mistake. A government can be wrong, as a country can be wrong. But a Church cannot be wrong.

It is a self-conception that United Nations shares only with Roman Catholicism. But where the Catholic Church cannot be wrong, in its own eyes, because on doctrinal matters Church teaching is infallible, the United Nations, according to its officials, is never wrong because for all intents and purposes it does not exist. When the UN's supporters argued, on Bosnia and on many other questions as well, that it was inappropriate to blame the UN because the institution could be no better than its members wanted it to be, the claim sounded reasonable. And yet to accept it is to accept the view that the United Nations is quite simply the only body devised by human beings in the history of the world that can never be held accountable for its actions.

That claim seems preposterous and, in this bald form, every UN official in the Balkans would have rejected it. Yet these same officials expected the world to take seriously the claim that UN peacekeepers had acted with perfect impartiality, and had no views of their own that they had allowed to get in the way of their administration of the mandate they have received from the Security Council. But everyone in UNPROFOR and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations did have views; what made no human sense was the suggestion that the policy recommendations they made derived not from these views, but from the mandate imposed on the UN. The first UNPROFOR commander, the Indian general Satish Nambiar, was regularly accused by UNHCR officials in 1993 of holding pro-Serb views. One senior official told me at the time 'When Nambiar looÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌàks at Izetbegovic, he sees Jinnah. For him, Izetbegovic is a man who ruined a perfectly good multiconfessional country, just as Jinnah reined India in 1947 by insisting on a separate Pakistan.' Susan Woodward, the US academic who did political analysis for Yasushi Akashi, was widely viewed even among her colleagues at UNPROFOR as being proSerb. And the UN's chief negotiator, Thorwald Stoltenberg proved, when he claimed that all Bosnian Muslims were really Serbs, that far from being impartial he subscribed to the Serb nationalist view of Bosnian history.

Other individuals may not have acted out of the allegiances imputed to them, but it is always more realistic to believe that people act out of what they think and feel rather than some Platonic ideal of disinterestedness. In the real world, when people describe themselves as disinterested, it usually means they either do not care or wish they could deal with something else. Certainly Boutros-Ghali's impatience with the question of Bosnia only deepened during the years of UNPROFOR's deployment. Asked by an interviewer, a few weeks before Srebrenica fell, what the UN had learned from Bosnia, the Secretary-General replied: '(Bosnia has created a distortion in the work of the UN. We are applying less attention to what is going on in Burundi, in Georgia.' His ambition, Boutros-Ghali said, was 'to pay attention to the marginalized.' That did not include Bosnia. Despite the suffering there, he insisted 'people outside are paying attention.'

This was in 1995, three weeks before the greatest massacre to occur on the European continent since the Second World War. But Boutros-Ghali remained faithful to his initial view of the conflict, expressed in Sarajevo in December 1992: it was a rich man's war, not worthy of the attention it had received. Three years later, he did not seem to have realized that, among other things, Bosnia had become for the United Nations what the Vietnam war was for the United States. He resented having had to deal with Bosnia, and he refused to confront its implications for the future of the UN. It was hardly surprising, in an old-fashioned vertical hierarchy like the United Nations, that the Secretary-General's views would permeate all the way through to the most junior UNPROFOR clerk.

Yet how the UN believed it could confront one of the great political crises of the twentieth century with, in the main, no views about its rights and wrongs other than a generalized condemnation of all sides - and a feeling that its mandate represented a deformation of the work the organization should have been doing is a mystery. A greater mystery is why it never attempted to extricate itself once its initial efforts had proven such a failure. UN officials interpreted the fact that their initial objections to a peacekeeping deployment had been overridden by the Security Council as condemning them to silence thereafter. But this was the case only because they did not speak up.

When asked why, even granting that the UN could do nothing more in Bosnia, the Secretary-General did not at least state publicly that the operation was a failure, senior UN officials tended to smile politely and shake their heads. In public Boutros-Ghali, that lead humble of Secretary-Generals, said over and over again: 'I am only a humble servant of the Security Council.' In private, UN officials insisted that the most powerful member states simply would never permit a Secretary-General to speak his mind in such a way.

But even if that is true - and since Boutros-Ghali never tried it we shall never know - it is only because, from a very early point in his tenure, the Secretary-General was running hard for re-election. The point was not so much that defying the member states made no institutional sense (if the Secretary-General cannot use his office as a bully pulpit, then the UN really is little more than a servicing bureaucracy on the model of the organization of African Unity), but that it made no political sense. If Boutros-Ghali wanted the voÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌàtes of the French, the British, the Russians and the Americans, who disagreed so fiercely on Bosnia, there was nothing for him to do but adopt a minimalist approach to the problem and say as little as possible, since anything he could say was bound to offend one or another of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Moreover, since UN officials were perfectly aware how many of the fifty-odd resolutions and eighty-odd presidential statements passed by the Security Council were in fact designed by individual member states not to effect a better outcome in Bosnia but to assuage outraged public opinion back home - in other words, were ends in themselves rather than new initiatives designed to do something effective for Bosnia - it was hardly surprising that they felt they were bearing the brunt of criticism that should have been directed at the national governments concerned. UN officials could have referred most of the blame to the member states, while acknowledging their own shame and, indeed, their just portion of guilt over the fact that, however many lives had been saved, the UN had, willingly or unwillingly, presided over the destruction of Bosnia and the Bosnian Muslims. Instead they insisted that they bore no responsibility for these disasters whatsoever.

To say, as Yasushi Akashi did at the time of Srebrenica (and as UN officials charged with dealing with Bosnia did as a matter of course), that he 'could understand' the reasons for the actions of both sides was, in effect, to say 'a plague on all of them': to make it known that, when all was said and done, one did not care that much what happened.

To be sure Akashi was an extreme example: a man notable, according to a number of people I spoke to who served under him, for being quite unmoved by the Bosnian conflict. For him, I was told, it was simply a task that he had been assigned to deal with and - as a career UN civil servant (Akashi too spoke regularly of his service to the UN in quasi-religious terms, alluding to his 'belief' in the organization and describing himself as 'a man of the UN') - one he felt duty-bound to discharge. Bosnia was never a cause for him, as it was for his opposite numbers in UNHCR, Jose Maria Mendiluce and Nicholas Morris: never something that seemed to engage him, except in the most narrowly constrained professional sense. Many of us assumed at the time that this meant Akashi was pro-Serb. But I now think we were wrong Akashi was not even pro-Serb.

The Secretary-General seems to have shared his Special Representative's indifference. 'I am like a doctor,' Boutros-Ghali placidly told one interviewer. 'I diagnose the patient and make certain recommendations for his cure. But if he does not follow my advice, it is hardly my fault.' The Secretary-General's remarks, in all their obtuseness and complacency, sum up perfectly the UN's stance throughout the Bosnian tragedy. There is no moral passion, not a breath of indignation and certainly no acceptance of even the most tangential responsibility. The United Nations, for Boutros-Ghali, did what it could, given the mandate it had received from the Security Council. If things did not go as well as they might have, this was the fault of the 'parties'. The Secretary-General did not quite go so far as to say, as France's President Jacques Chirac is reported to have done, that all the belligerents were 'brutes and barbarians,' or as one British Foreign Office functionary put it to Michael Williams (UNPROFOR's Director of Public Information in 1993 and 1994), 'they're all cannibals, dear boy.' But the implication is clear. The United Nations has not failed the Bosnians, the Bosnians have failed the United Nations.

It is possible to maintain such a stance only if one leaches the conflict of all its political and moral sense. 'Sad to say', wrote one UNPROFOR staff member in an open letter defending the UN's role in the former Yugoslavia, 'but (heroes may be an illusion created by CNN and by public intellectuals in search of simple truths, nobleÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌà victims and terrible villains.' The only ones he was willing to concede were heroic were 'the people who tell us they just want the war to end.' For this official, the leaders were all the same. He is not interested in exploring the justice of their conflicting claims, only in pointing out they are in conflict. Indeed the one thing he does not want to do is judge their ideas. Instead he offers an entirely formalistic, contentless analysis of the tragedy. For him, it seems, impartiality means doling out blame to all sides ... impartially. All the belligerents, he writes, 'bargain hard and all appear loath to make concessions for peace. All retain their maximal goals regardless of the price paid by their people.' In Bosnia, he insists, everyone's hands are dirty.

The goals in question are not stated, let alone judged. 'I will not conclude', the UNPROFOR official writes, by 'naming the aggressor'. He implies that he declines to do this because he rejects such simplistic ascriptions of blame. What the UN never wanted to understand was that without such an analysis, all its actions in the former Yugoslavia led it not to impartiality or good works, but to collusion with aggression. That may not have been the intention, but it was the result. And it has become so pervasive that even Elisabeth Rehn, the Finnish politician who succeeded Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights (and might have been expected to know better), told an interviewer as she took up her post that if she did her job properly, she 'would be condemned by all sides'.

In fact one side, the Bosnian government, had consistently welcomed human-rights investigations and declared that any of their own personnel indicted for war crimes would be turned over to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. They were able to do this not because they were better at publicity than the Serbs or the Croats, but because, unlike the other belligerents, they were actually committed to the rule of law. The equivalence that the UN was at such pains to insist upon simply did not exist. This is not to say that the extradition of a leading Bosnian commander - Nasir Oric, say, who already in the fall of 1995 was one of the most-discussed prospects for the first senior Bosnian government figure liable to be indicted - would have been easy to accomplish. He had his protectors in Sarajevo, just as General Mladic and General Mrksic (the officer who ordered the destruction of Vukovar in 1991) - both already indicted by the Tribunal - had theirs in Belgrade. But unlike the Serbian and Croatian sides (the day after a senior Coat officer was indicted, President Tudjman ostentatiously promoted him), the Bosnian government was serious about human rights, but was it was serious, for all the talk of one-party rule and Islamic fundamentalism, about a state based on citizenship rather than ethnic identity.

But for the UN to have acknowledged any of this would have meant that the entire rationale for its behaviour in Bosnia would have had to be re-examined. As long as all sides were equally guilty, as long as the UN could hew to its fundamentally apolitical understanding of the Bosnian conflict as pitting a suffering civilian population that just wanted peace against various military and political formations intent on continuing the war, it did not have to examine its own role. Furthermore, it could insist that it, practically alone among the parties both external and internal, had behaved honourably in what one UNPROFOR official described as the 'firm and long-standing United Nations tradition of peaekeeping rooted in international law, impartiality and procedural objectivity.'

The sentence is remarkable. It holds together only if all sides are equally guilty. Otherwise how can impartiality - in the sense of making no distinction in one's practical dealings between someone who commits genocide, as the International War Crimes Tribunal has accused Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic of doing, and the victims of genocideÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌà - be consistent with international law in which genocide is a crime? But since the UN did not believe, or at least had managed to convince it self, that there was no fundamental issue of justice at stake, it could without scruple sacrifice everything else in its mandate on the altar of ending the fighting. The Secretary-General became clearer and clearer on this point as the fighting wore on. 'The result of the negotiations,' he old an interviewer, 'may not be equity, but it may be peace. Then you have a problem: What I more important, peace, or peace at the expense of certain principles of equity? My theory is that what happens in a war is so terrible that peace is better, even if it is not a just peace.'

But of course the Secretary-General's words begged the question. In his office at DePaul University in Chicago, Professor Cherif Bassouni, who served as the UN's principal war crimes investigator for the former Yugoslavia between 1992 and the time his old friend Boutros Boutros-Ghali dismissed him in 1994, has a coffee mug engraved with the words: 'If you want peace, work for justice.' That saying encapsulates what the UN never understood, or never wanted to understand about Bosnia. The point is not to weigh the relative merits of a war against an unjust peace - anyone who will not have to kill or die in such a war should think a great deal before daring to venture an opinion on that - but rather, as Judge Richard Goldstone, the chief prosecutor of the Hague Tribunal, has pointed out, that without a measure of justice there can be no durable peace. In other words the choice the UN has offered, between justice and peace, between the mandate and morality, has been a false one all along. What people like Goldstone and Bassouni have been saying is that without Nuremberg, its jurisprudential problems notwithstanding, Germany could never have been reintegrated into Europe; and without a bringing of the Karadzics and the Mladics to account, there will be no peace in the Balkans, only lulls in the slaughter.

The guns of Bosnia, and of all the future Bosnias that will sure loom up before us over the course of the next quarter century, will not fall silent until that Chinese wall between peace and justice is torn down.

David Rieff, who began reporting on the Bosnian war in the summer of 1992, is the author of Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1995). This article appeared in the 12 February 1996 issue of The New Republic.


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