The West could have prevented the Srebrenica tragedy
by Claire Trean, with an accompanying extract from Henry Porter
Preventing the Srebrenica tragedy was militarily feasible, according to General Christian Quesnot, who was chief of staff of the President of the Republic from April 1991 to September 1995 under Francois Mitterand followed by Jacques Chirac, and who was one of the two witnesses summoned on Thursday 11 January to the National Assembly by the deputies investigating the failure of the international community to prevent the massacres carried out in July 1995 in eastern Bosnia.
According to the general, it is 'obvious' that the West was militarily 'completely capable of preventing the capture of Srebrenica or of retaking the enclave'. 'We had at least thirty times the armour and one hundred times the artillery of the Serbs; it was completely within the capacity of the Americans, the British or the French', he said. Christian Quesnot then challenged the claim of technical unfeasibility to which Admiral Lanxade, former chief of staff of the French Army, had in part had recourse during his interrogation the previous month by the parliamentary enquiry.
Like the admiral and many others, General Quesnot denounced the prevarication of the UN in proclaiming the Muslim enclave a 'safe area' without furnishing the means to protect it. He defended the French and foreign officers who had served in Bosnia, saying that they were 'among the best of their generation' but had been victims of the mandate imposed on the blue helmets which 'violated not only the principles of warfare but threatened their basic security'. 'The use of the armed forces was not carried out correctly', he insisted.
Once the UN's fiasco had been recognized, however, other responses were possible. General Quesnot was the man who, after it was learned on 11 July 1995 that the enclave of Srebrenica had fallen, was asked by Jacques Chirac to devise possible means to retake it from the Serbs. He had proposed an airborne operation (a national or multinational operation outside of UN control) for which he was asked to evaluate the risks. 'I estimated them to be the loss of an aeroplane and of two helicopters, that is to say between twenty-five and a hundred men', he said on Thursday.
If these hearings before the National Assembly are actually taking place, it is not only because it is in the public interest to learn the lessons provided by the events at Srebrenica, but also because of a particular suspicion that is weighing upon France. The commander of UN forces in Bosnia, General Janvier, was a Frenchman; it was he, formally, who refused the close air-support operation that the Dutch blue helmets stationed in the enclave had six times requested.
The previous month the Serbs had finally freed the blue helmets they had taken hostage - among them several Frenchmen - after the humiliation they had undergone had been broadcast on television screens across the world. According to some theories Jacques Chirac negotiated with Slobodan Milosevic the release of the hostages in exchange for a commitment to oppose any air intervention in Bosnia such as was being advocated by some sections of the media. Like Henri Jacolin, the first French ambassador to Bosnia who was also heard by the deputies on Thursday, General Quesnot denied this. Not only because, according to him, he 'personally believed' that it was false, but because in his role, he says, he could not but have known of it.
Quesnot gave on Thursday a description of the international landscape in the summer of 1995. The Americans had 'right from the start' assumed that the Muslim enclaves in East Bosnia 'must eventually revert to the Serbs'. The English were concerned for their blue helmets in Gorazde. The Dutch were even more concerned for theirs based in Srebrenica; they had already announced that they would not guarantee to provide others to replace them at the end of their mandate, and nobody was offering to take over their role in the enclave.
It was in this context that the Serb offensive was launched in July. 'At that moment', said Quesnot, 'it was the government concerned that in a certain manner took things in hand. It was the Dutch Minister of Defence who opposed a close air-support operation, following discussions with the UN.'
The rapid reaction force (RRF), 'the first concrete measure' taken on the initiative of Jacques Chirac in order to escape from 'the untenable situation' in which the UN forces in Bosnia had found themselves, was not yet fully deployed. France, explained the general, was preoccupied first and foremost - and successfully - with Sarajevo. 'Srebrenica was not in its zone of responsibility', he stated. It was nevertheless the only country to consider plans to 'recapture' the enclave that had fallen into the hands of the Serbs.
A deputy asked him how the French general staff had received these plans. 'It was necessary to consult Admiral Lanxade and General Germanos [in charge of operations in the former Yugoslavia and French chief of staff]. They thought perhaps that it was not possible...' Last month Admiral Lanxade had declared that no plan of recapture had ever been taken seriously into consideration. 'That was not the problem', Christian Quesnot said, however. 'If there had been the international, bi-national or national will to do so, the chief of staff would have carried it out', whatever he thought about it.
This article has been translated from Le Monde, 12 January 2001
A few weeks before the Serb forces, commanded by indicted war criminal General Ratko Mladic, moved to seize Srebrenica, Janvier and Mladic held a series of meetings during which it is widely believed the French soldier guaranteed there would be no UN intervention at Srebrenica as long as UNPROFOR troops being held hostage (many of them French) were released. Weight to this allegation is added by the fact that when the Serbs subsequently surrounded the town and began a bombardment, Janvier astonishingly refused the pleas from the 700 Dutch peacekeepers for heavy air strikes. The accusation of what amounts to Janvier's criminal collusion with the Serbs has refused to go away. Last year the French reluctantly set up [an] inquiry after pressure from all sides, especially from the charity Médecins Sans Frontières, which suspected that Janvier was acting on instructions from the highest levels in the French government. It is essential to establish how Janvier was instructed by his political masters and what passed between him and Mladic in the three meetings in June 1995. If it is found that either of these consultations affected his decision about air strikes, then there may be a good case for an indictment from The Hague. The crucial point is that the failure to support the Dutch troops on the ground was a signal to Mladic that he could murder as many Muslims as he could lay his hands on.
Henry Porter, 'France's role in a Bosnian massacre', The Observer, 22 April 2001