Letter: Blame UN for Dutch fiasco in Bosnia

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Blame UN for Dutch fiasco in Bosnia

Sir: I must take issue with Robert Fisk ("Dutch courage is a disgrace to the United Nations", 7 November) for criticism of Dutch UN peacekeepers in their failure to defend Srebrenica.

Just before the safe areas were created, five member states in the Security Council (Pakistan, Djibouti, Morocco, Venezuela and Cap Verde) wanted Muslim enclaves to be liberated by force. The five veto powers were against such an idea. It was May 1993, in the first months of the Clinton presidency, and although specialists in the State Department desperately urged him to act, the President would not get involved. But at the time, CNN television was focused on Bosnia, and eventually the decision to create safe areas was made by a council desperate for something to be done.

The procedure for the creation of safe areas is outlined in detail in the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The safety of such areas is dependent on demilitarisation, without which they are not safe. The conventions stipulate agreement from both sides, a timetable and inspection mechanisms and a full range of military resources. In Bosnia, the council ignored this.

When researching a book I interviewed Lt-Gen Lars-Eric Wahlgren of Sweden, who told me of a cable he sent to the Council before the safe areas resolution was passed, in which he pleaded that the policy be reconsidered. The areas, without being demilitarised or defended, would surely fall. Even with the necessary agreements on the ground, the safe areas would need an extra 34,000 troops.

The Wahlgren cable was ignored and the Security Council approved the resolution. Other commanders thought the idea was folly - the safe areas would never be viable. They were right. The blue helmets found it hard to keep their own lifelines open, let alone protect people under siege.

The resolution on safe areas was approved before their perimeters, troop numbers, rules of engagement, the precise role of Nato and close air support were agreed. In the hours leading up to the fall of Srebrenica, there were 1,500 Serbs approaching with rocket launchers and tanks. There were 400 Dutch peacekeepers, who were running out of ammunition and marooned between the two sides. They had no artillery and little fuel for their armoured personnel-carriers.

The stories of the three great tragedies of Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda have somehow become divorced from the decisions taken in the Security Council - decisions which have made a decisive difference for millions of people. The mistakes made in the council have been too quickly disregarded.

To blame peacekeepers for civilian casualties shows a disregard for the integrity of the historical record. The focus should be on the Council and an increased scrutiny of Britain's role within it.

At the end of the article, Fisk asks: "Aren't soldiers occasionally expected to fight, even to die?" The answer apparently is no, not for UN peacekeeping. We are told that one of the lessons of Somalia is that public opinion will not allow it. Peace is not worth the lives of peacekeepers.


London N16