This year marks the 20th anniversary of the commission of genocide in Srebrenica in which, under the protection of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) the Bosnian Serb Army (BSA) brutally killed over 8,000 Muslim men and boys, throwing their bodies into mass graves, and then reburying them in secondary graves in order to hide these heinous crimes. The forces sexually abused countless women and deported the elderly, women and children against their will. The horrific crimes under the eye of the UN marked yet another failure to protect civilians from atrocity crimes. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice have both affirmed that crimes committed in 1995 amount to genocide.
While many countries and leaders throughout the world are using this solemn anniversary to honor the victims and reflect on the lessons learned from this tragedy, some political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), including the President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, continue to deny that the genocide occurred. This denial has impacted how the UN sought to commemorate the anniversary as a UN Security Council (UNSC) draft resolution brought forward by the United Kingdom, which would have recognized the crimes as genocide as well as included strong references to RtoP, was vetoed by the government of Russia. This veto followed calls from actors such as Mladen Ivanic, Chairmen of the Presidency, who urged the UNSC not to adopt a resolution commemorating the genocide.
Undeniably, the international community has worked hard to change its norms, structures, and responses in an effort to avert another Srebrenica. However, Russia’s 8 July 2015 veto of the commemoration resolution, as well as failures to halt atrocities in Syria, South Sudan, and Burma, among others, shows that not all lessons from the past have been learned. As United Kingdom Ambassador Peter Wilson highlights, “We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of twenty years ago. We must act where we have early warning. We must find greater unity in this Council and use all of the tools at our disposal to do so.”
Lessons Learned in Fostering a Culture of Prevention at the UN
In 1999, Kofi Annan released his report on the “Fall of Srebrenica” in which he highlighted the UN’s failures in responding to Srebrenica and identified lessons to be drawn from the genocide. The report stressed that different actors within the UN, including the peacekeeping mission and Member States, failed to adequately communicate and share intelligence. According to the report, members of the battalion “were aware of sinister indications,” but “did not report more fully the scenes that were unfolding around them.” Additionally, the report explained that the UN failed to fully understand the Serb war aims, partly because of inadequate and inaccurate reporting.
The failures in Srebrenica were a driving factor for the dramatic reconsideration of how the UN conducts its peacekeeping operations as well as directly influenced the development of the Responsibility to Protect ( RtoP) to serve as the primary framework for the prevention of future atrocities. Along with the development of RtoP, other key advances include the Human Rights Up Front initiative, the appointment of the Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, the creation of the Peacebuilding Commission, and the Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes.
Lessons Learned in Fostering a Culture of Response at the United Nations
The UN’s failure to protect civilians from the horrific atrocity crimes committed in Srebrenica—as well as other mass atrocities— led the organization to conduct its own soul searching with regards to its capacity to protect populations. The Secretary-General’s 1999 Srebrenica report urged Member States to address several challenges that the Srebrenica genocide uncovered, including the gap between mandates and means, how and when to use force, as well as the principle of impartiality even when faced with a risk of genocide. Around the same time, the UNSC passed its first thematic resolution on the protection of civilians (POC) and authorized the first-ever POC mandate in a UN peacekeeping operation (the UN Mission in Sierra Leone).
Similar to the 1999 Srebrenica report, the Brahimi Report also expressed concerns in regards to creating high protection expectations, emphasizing that “if an operation is given a mandate to protect civilians, therefore, it also must be given the specific resources needed to carry out the mandate.” In regards to the UN’s past reluctance to use force in fear of not adhering to the principle of impartiality, the Report stressed, “no failure did more damage to the standing credibility of UN peacekeeping in the 1990s than its reluctance to distinguish victim from aggressor.” It further stated that UN peacekeepers “who witness violence against civilians should be presumed to be authorized to stop it…”
Since the first POC mandate, and the release of the Brahimi Report, the UNSC has authorized more robust POC mandates in different crises, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, and the Central African Republic. Furthermore, the Council’s thematic resolutions on POC began to stress that “protection activities must be given priority with decisions about the use of available capacity and resources.” Indeed, the protection of civilians has become a core activity of many UN missions, including those with Chapter VII authorizations. The UN Force Intervention Brigade in the DRC also added another dimension to the protections of civilians, as it had the authority to take offensive action in order to neutralize armed groups. Certainly, during the past 20 years, there have been significant changes in the way in which the UN responds to armed conflicts, as well as the means and capabilities it is willing to provide to missions for the purpose of protecting civilians.
Making “Never Again” a Reality
Despite these advances, the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica is also an opportunity to reflect on what the UN has not done to prevent and respond to atrocities. War crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide continue to be perpetrated throughout the world, including in Syria, Darfur, and Burma, among countless other countries and regions. Such conflicts illustrate both that the culture of prevention has yet to firmly and consistently take hold and that states are failing to live up to their responsibility to protect populations.
For example, on the protection of civilians front, the 2014 Office of Internal Oversight Services report found “persistent pattern of PKOs [peacekeeping operations] not interfering with force when civilians are under imminent attack.” Out of 507 reported by missions with POC mandates in which civilians were at threat from 2010-2013, a paltry 101 (20 percent) had garnered an immediate response.
The recent report of the High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations also echoes some of the same 15-year old concerns highlighted by both the 1999 report on Srebrenica and the Brahimi Report. In particular, the 2015 report emphasized that although there has been progress in promoting the protection of civilians, there are still significant gaps between what is asked of peace operations and what they can actually deliver. Furthermore, the Report highlighted that although many missions are operating in extremely hostile environments, “the challenges and implications of this new operating environment have not yet been well-defined or internalized.”
The Srebrenica genocide also highlighted other areas in peace operations in need of improvement, including immunity for peacekeepers. Though the 1999 Srebrenica report stated that “it is not possible to say with any certainty that stronger actions by the Dutchbat would have saved lives, and it is even possible that such efforts could have done more harm than good,” a Dutch court said in July 2014 that the Netherlands was liable for the deaths of more than 300 victims of Srebrenica. Nevertheless, accountability for peacekeepers, particularly in the wake of new accusations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, is virtually non-existent. Indeed, organizations such as the Stimson Center continue to urge the UN to “undertake a comprehensive and independent evaluation of the approach undertaken by the UN Secretariat to eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse” in peacekeeping operations. (See the ICRtoP’s recent statement in this regard.)
In addition, stark challenges remain with regards to the UNSC acting to respond in the face of atrocity crimes. This stems explicitly from the continued misuse by Russia and China to wield their veto power when the Council seeks to condemn and act to protect civilians, as most notably evidenced in response to the ongoing crisis in Syria and most recently during the Srebrenica commemoration. As stressed by United States Ambassador Samantha Power, “Twenty years ago the international community failed to protect the people taking refuge in Srebrenica, and the result was genocide. Today, because of Russia’s refusal to call what happened in Srebrenica by its rightful name, genocide, the Council is again failing to live up to its responsibility.”
Civil society organizations have started initiatives that aim to address many of these challenges, including by urging UNSC members to refrain from the use of the veto in mass atrocity cases, as well as highlighting the importance of prevention and effective response. The international community must continue to address the lessons it has drawn from the Srebrenica genocide and take further steps to prevent and respond to mass atrocities. If not, civilians across the world facing the risk of such horrific crimes and violations will continue to suffer, as did the victims of Srebrenica.