Myth of the Month
by Noel Malcolm
With a little help from the UN, the British Government and the BBC, Serb propaganda about 'safe areas' has been gradually creeping into public debate about them in this country. The commonest claim is that safe areas were meant to be 'demilitarised' - indeed, that that was the basic principle in which the whole concept of 'safe areas' in Bosnia was originally founded. It suits the Serbs to say this, of course, since they can then complain that the 'safe area'status of Srebrenica, Bihac and the others was invalidated long ago by the presence of Bosnian govrnment soldiers in them. This whole argument rests, however, on a myth.
The safe areas were set up by two UN Security Councilk resolutions, nos. 824 (6 May 1993) and 836 (4 June 1993). Neither of these says anything about 'demilitarisation.' On the contrary, no.836 directly implies that Bosnian Government forces are entitled to remain in the safe areas; it calls on UNPROFOR to promote 'the withdrawal [from the safe areas] of military or paramilitary units other than those of the Government of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina'. Resolution 824, similarly, calls for 'the withdrawal of all Bosnian Serb military or paramilitary units in these towns.'
Nothing in these resolutions supports the idea that 'both sides' were meant to cease military activities, equally and symmetrically, within the safe areas. The reasoÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ`n why there should be no such symmetry was obvious, even to the UN Security Council. Resolution 836 condemned 'the military attacks, and actions that do not respect the sovereignty.... of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.' It is an inalienable part of a state's sovereignty that its own legitimate armed forces should be entitled to defend its citizens from attack.
What may have confused some sommentators is the fact that separate agreements on the non-use of weaponry were made, on separate occasions, in some of the safe areas. Thus heavy weapons exclusion zones were imposed by the UN in Sarajevo (February1994) and Gorazde (April 1994). These, as we know, were later systematically broken by the Serbs.
In just one case there was an agreement on 'demilitarisation.' In April 1993, when Srebrenica was on the point of falling, a formal agreement was made between the Bosnian Army and the rebel Serb forces to 'demilitarise' the town. It was under this agreement that Bosnian soldiers in Srebrenica handed over their weapons to UNPROFOR.
This 'demilitarisation' agreement had nothing to do with the UN concept of 'safe areas'. It did not originate from the UN; it was a bilateral agreement between Sarajevo and Pale. And the resolutions setting up the 'safe areas' had not yet been passed.
The agreement signed in April 1993 was not only about demilitarisation. It also included promises by the Serbs to allow (1) freedom of movement in and out of Srebrenica, and
(2) the delivery of humanitarian aid. These two promises were systematically broken by the Serbs during the two years which followed; so they can hardly turn round now and blame Bosnian defenders of Srebrenica for having broken the promise on demilitarisation. According to Bosnian sources, the occasional raids by armed Bosnians on Serb villages were essentially foraging expeditions by people desperate for food. The Serbs had been pursuing a deliberate policy of starving the enclave into surrender. In other words, it was the Serbs' own failure to honour the April 1993 agreement which directly caused those minor military actions by the Bosnians, which the Serbs then used as their pretext for their final assault on Srebrenica last month.