Lessons for Britain in a Dutch gesture

Author: Carole Hodge
Uploaded: Monday, 27 May, 2002

Following the resignation of the Dutch government after publication of its report into the Srebrenica massacre, Carole Hodge in The Scotsman discusses what emerges from the reports on the massacre now available, and argues that the blame goes far wider than the Dutch government.

The Dutch government’s resignation, in recognition of its partial responsibility for the events of Srebrenica, when over 7,500 men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb troops, set an important precedent. But international responsibility for what happened in Srebrenica in 1995 extends well beyond the Netherlands.

To date, there have been three major investigations into the events of Srebrenica, all of which indicate that the fall of the enclave ensued from several years of flawed international policy in Bosnia, including the "safe area" concept, the blanket arms embargo, and the deployment of UN troops on the ground without a viable mandate.

Significantly, Britain has taken a back seat in the public examination of the issue. Yet, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and through the John Major government, which assumed a leading role in forming international policy in Bosnia, Britain has much to answer for what happened.

And while the British UN commander in Bosnia, General Sir Rupert Smith, was on leave at the time of the Srebrenica débâcle - and had personally advocated a tougher approach towards the Serbs - he has so far remained silent on the events leading up to the fall of Srebrenica and on subsequent negotiations with the Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic and President Slobodan Milosevic, in which he was a major player.

A UN report in particular pointed to a discernible pattern of decision-making within the Security Council from early on in the war. The countries which opposed the lifting of the arms embargo which would have "levelled the playing field" for Bosnia - including Britain, which was instrumental in its introduction in 1991 - at the same time resisted efforts to expand the UN mandate in such a way as to confront the Serbs.

It was Britain, moreover, which argued most forcefully within the UN for the "light option" of only 5,000 additional troops to protect the "safe areas", rejecting the majority preference for an extra 32,000.

Even after the Srebrenica massacre, Britain insisted - contrary to the French view - that the new Rapid Reaction Force was for UN troop protection only and not to combat the Serbs. For several years the British position prevailed, which placed emphasis on a negotiated settlement at all costs, eschewing the preferred US option of air strikes combined with a partial lifting of the arms embargo. The result on the ground of such a policy, however, was to reinforce the Greater Serbia agenda.

A conference in London held ten days after the fall of Srebrenica, issued a declaration stating in no uncertain terms that a full-scale NATO attack would ensue if Gorazde, where 200 Welsh Fusiliers were stationed, was attacked. While Bihac and Zepa, also safe areas, were at that time under fierce attack by Serb forces, they were not mentioned.

The Serbs received the message: Gorazde remained free from attack, but the onslaught on Bihac and Zepa continued, the latter falling to the Serbs days later.

Gorazde - also a declared "safe area" but without a UN presence - had already fallen victim to duplicity when Serb tanks moved out of the NATO exclusion zone around Sarajevo, supposedly under UN control, and headed for Gorazde.

The British UN commander, General Sir Michael Rose, sought in the early stages to minimise the danger of a Serb attack. This gave the Serbs a head start, and the veiled encouragement implied by Gen Rose’s nonchalant approach was endorsed by support from the Yugoslav army.

Despite the downing of a British Harrier jet and the fatal wounding of an SAS officer in the enclave, British ministers did not condemn the Serb assault, alluding instead to a symmetry of guilt between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs.

When the onslaught had abated, Gen Rose entered the enclave, criticising the Bosnian government for having capitulated so easily, and questioning the casualty toll. Ultimately, an agreement with the Serbs was reached whereby British troops entered Gorazde as potential hostages, having been stripped of their ammunition and personal cameras. The French, also scheduled for deployment in Gorazde, were recalled after a direct order from the Elysée.

The following year, over 30 British troops in Gorazde were taken hostage by the Serbs, severely compromising the international negotiating position. Eventually, in late August 1995, they left, following a deal with Slobodan Milosevic.

In his brief address to parliament announcing his government’s resignation, Wim Kok, the Dutch prime minister, said the entire international community should share the blame for the failure to prevent genocide. In view of its track-record in Bosnia, is it not time that Britain also offered a contribution to the public debate?

Carole Hodge is research fellow at the South East European Research Unit, University of Glasgow. Her comment appeared in The Scotsman, 18 April 2002

Army’s chief of staff resigns over Srebrenica report

THE Dutch army’s top general resigned yesterday, a day after the government collapsed over the failure of its peacekeeping soldiers to prevent the slaughter of thousands of people during the Bosnian war.

The prime minister, Wim Kok, and his cabinet quit on Tuesday after a report condemned politicians and the military for sending troops on an impossible mission to protect the Srebrenica enclave, where up to 8,000 Muslims were massacred.

The army’s chief of staff, General Ad van Baal, 55, was the second highest-ranking officer in the Dutch army at the time of Srebrenica, the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War.

"He resigned today. Since the report, he sees that he can no longer be in charge of the army ," said Mike Meyburg, chief of army information at the Dutch defence ministry.

"The report does not show him responsible for Srebrenica, but he agrees that he is not doing the army any service by staying ," Mr Meyburg told reporters.

The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation report, published last week, condemned the Dutch troops in Srebrenica for unwittingly assisting in "ethnic cleansing".

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