A skewed vision of the UN in Bosnia
by Kurt Bassuener
Philip Corwin, Dubious Mandate – A Memoir of the UN in Bosnia, Summer 1995, Duke University Press, Durham, NC 1999, 312 pp., $27.95.
Corwin’ s book, based on a number of weeks in Bosnia as UN Civil Affairs coordinator during Bosnia’s final summer of war in 1995, is presented as a memoir. But the book is best read as an exposition of the structural and doctrinal flaws in the UN peacekeeping system that led to the bloody fall of ‘safe areas’ ðepa and Srebrenica in July 1995, written by a true believer in that UN system.
To the UN’s much belated credit, many of its failings – conscious unwillingness to differentiate between aggressor and victim, a willingness to be blackmailed by the Bosnian Serb forces, etc. – were documented in detail in its own 2000 Srebrenica (and Rwanda) Report, as well as in the Lakhdar Brahimi Report, which proposed significant though insufficient changes to the UN peacekeeping system. In the face of this willingness to look at UN failures, Corwin is a devout rejectionist. He adheres to an unreconstructed view of how the UN should address peacekeeping – Chapter 6 fundamentalism, if you will. According to Corwin, the UN did not fail in Bosnia – the war simply did not fit the Cold War paradigm the UN peacekeeping system was designed to address. To top it off, as recently as January 17 in a letter to the editor published in The New York Times he still advocated the partition of Bosnia. As such, the Corwin book is an indispensable volume for those who want to see how the UN system failed so miserably in Bosnia. It was precisely attitudes such as Corwin’s, predominant in the UN during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, which led to the UN becoming an active enabler for genocide in modem Europe and beyond.
Diary of a bureaucrat
The book should be required reading for those who wish to reform the UN peacekeeping system, since Corwin exposes the entire gamut of failures, both within the system itself and for the countries which wish to use it as a repository for crises they want off their agendas. Unfortunately Corwin is capable only of looking squarely at the cynicism of the great powers, while simultaneously being an exemplar of the organization’s own systemic inability – and unwillingness – to be effective in Bosnia. Dubious Mandate is essentially the diary of a UN bureaucrat out of his depth, lost in a conflict where the standard ‘peacekeeping’ template he has been conditioned to apply is utterly inappropriate. Sadly this attitude remains ingrained in the UN, as its lacklustre performance in Sierra Leone and continued arguments over ‘mandate’ make abundantly clear.
All its unintended importance aside, Dubious Mandate is a difficult and often nauseating slog for readers familiar with the war in Bosnia. Throughout the book Corwin displays a seemingly wilful naiveté as to the nature of the war. An evidently bruised ego is on display page after page, along with a great deal of self-important carping about the indignities suffered by him within the mission and at the hands of the Bosnian government. There are repeated references to the Bosnian Serb forces’ ‘tactics’ being deplorable, but usually implied sympathy with the aims of ‘President’ Radovan Karadzic, General Ratko Mladic et al. Quite obviously the ‘tactics’ Corwin displays (rather mild) criticism for were integral to the Bosnian Serb (and Serbian) strategy to clear swathes of Bosnia, as in Croatia in 1991, of non-Serbs. At the same time, Corwin derisively decries the Bosnian government’s efforts calling for international intervention. He sneers that Sarajevo wanted UNPROFOR to become ‘their mercenaries’, in an odd echo of a sentiment famously uttered by a previous UNPROFOR commander, General Michael Rose.
Some of Corwin’ s assertions are egregiously incorrect. There is no serious debate as to whether the Bosnian Serb Army received major support, even direction, from Belgrade. Although it is clear that Serbian paramilitaries (integrated into the Yugoslav command structure) and special units were sent to initiate ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the opening weeks of the war – in Zvornik, Bijeljina, and elsewhere - Corwin questions the veracity of these indubitable facts in his introduction.
Denying Bosnia arms
But far more damning and frustrating for this reader was the skewed interpretation of facts. Corwin often criticizes the hospitality of the Bosnian government to the UN mission. By 1995 the relationship was indeed quite strained. The very reason President Alija Izetbegovic had requested a UN preventive deployment to Bosnia (as was later done in Macedonia, well after war had erupted in B-H) was that the UN’s stature as an international arbiter had risen greatly at the close of the Cold War. The rhetoric surrounding the Iraqi invasion, and subsequent UN-sanctioned liberation of Kuwait, definitely created an expectation that the UN would now robustly defend its members. The destruction of Bosnia, and international inaction, fatally laid bare this illusion. A memorable political cartoon of the time exposed this perfectly. A Bosnian man is furiously digging a hole in the ground in a bombed-out landscape. An onlooker asks, ‘Are you digging a bomb shelter?’ ‘No,’ replies the Bosnian, ‘I’m digging for oil.’ Corwin certainly sees obligations flowing only in the direction from Sarajevo to the UN: the government should not impede UN personnel, should do what it can to stop the war, etc., all because it is a UN member. Never does it dawn on him that Bosnia was denied for three years the right to defend itself, as a UN member, by buying arms.
The fact was that the UN structure had not adapted to the new role thrust upon it by the change of the international environment and by powers that chose to remain absent, notably the United States. UN peacekeeping missions had hitherto been relatively simple (albeit often extremely dangerous) affairs. A symbolic interposition of light infantry between two opposing forces, usually along a demarcated ceasefire line, à la Cyprus or Lebanon. Their deterrence value was essentially political, though in some cases, as with the UN Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), they bravely and hopelessly resisted a breach of the cease-fire – in this case, an Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. A mentality of scrupulous ‘neutrality’ was inculcated in such cease-fire monitors, often long after the crisis had cooled.
Clearly, such methods were unequal to the challenge of Bosnia, where a heavily armed Bosnian Serb Army (created from off-the-shelf elements of the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army, or JNA) confronted an unprepared Bosnian government and population. The major gains of territory by this onslaught were made in the first few months of the war, leaving isolated pockets that later became notorious ‘UN-protected safe areas’ at the insistence of a Security Council that was unwilling to provide resources to defend them properly. The best known of these was the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which fell to the Bosnian Serb Army (with forces from Serbia) in July 1995, despite being ‘protected’ by a Dutch battalion.
One would think this episode of ignominy would rate a significant portion of a memoir written during the period. But Corwin only briefly touches on the episode, which ended in the massacre of an estimated 7,000 Bosniak men and the expulsion of the remaining population from the enclave. In fact, it comes up as an inconvenient fact breaking his rant about the impertinence of the Bosnian government. He was far more concerned with his being himself declared persona non grata by Hasan Muratovic, a Bosnian official who blamed the UN for Srebrenica’s fall. To quote a memo he sent to UN Special Representative to the Secretary-General Yasushi Akashi (the man who repeatedly quashed air strikes requested by UNPROFOR ground commanders), ‘we cannot and must not accept that our contacts with the Bosnian Serbs be annulled by terrorist intimidation.’ Indeed Corwin soon left Bosnia, just as the war was reaching its dénouement. The book’s diary narrative ends with his drive to the Adriatic coast, seeing the NATO rapid reaction force moving into Bosnia with its heavy combat armaments. Combined with the effects of a Croatian-Bosnian government offensive in northern Bosnia and long-overdue NATO airstrikes, the rapid reaction force helped force the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiation table by threatening to collapse their undermanned force.
An afterword goes on to attack the arrest of those indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague. The degree of self-delusion is astounding. To wit: ‘I was sure that, given the proper amount of time, the Bosnian Serbs would deal with their own criminals.’ He also decries a focus on the right of refugees to return to homes from which they were expelled. Corwin views return as a misplaced priority. ‘Why not encourage exchanges of property?’ he asks. ‘Such ideas [are] politically incorrect,’ he concludes.
Consistent to the last, Corwin fails to see the contradiction. If those expelled remain away, how could those who expelled them be seen as ‘criminal’ by the Bosnian Serb population? Karadzic’s vision would have been largely fulfilled. Admittedly Republika Srpska is somewhat smaller than it was when it reached its high watermark of 70 percent of Bosnia’s territory, and Sarajevo is not a divided city like Berlin or Belfast, as Karadzic had hoped. However, his legacy remains essentially intact to this day, despite some marginal progress.
Recent attacks on Bosniaks and international officials attending the rededication of the site of a destroyed mosque (and provocations by separatist Croatian nationalists in Herzegovina) illustrate that those who fomented the war, like Karadzic, keep the dream alive. Far from being seen as a criminal, current trends indicate that at least in his ‘Republika Srpska’ he may be seen as the misunderstood father of the nation. As Corwin might say, his tactics were deplorable, but he ‘had a point’.
The most disturbing fact this reader drew from Corwin’s book is that precious little has changed in the approach of the UN toward addressing modern conflict, or in the mind-set of UN member states in sending the UN to do tasks which it is clearly incapable of handling. UN peacekeeping remains all too often a willing alibi for lack of decisive political and military action in conflicts most great powers would rather ignore. For example, in Sierra Leone a UN force is opposing a more forceful British military approach in facing Africa’s own Khmer Rouge, the Revolutionary United Front, for fear of forestalling avenues to that group - at a time when the RUF is collapsing. After reading Corwin’s account and thinking back to the experience in Bosnia, this sounds all too nauseatingly familiar. No doubt, there are UN civil-affairs officers there who, like Corwin, see their duty as being to grasp at every ethereal straw for peace, even if it amounts to appeasement of a brutal aggressor. The UN has a long way to go.
This review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Journal of Croatian Studies