Elusive truth of genocide in Srebrenica

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The arrest last month in Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic on corruption charges has aroused hopes that he might one day be brought to the Hague to face war crimes charges. He has already been indicted as a war criminal. Similarly, hopes have risen about getting to the bottom of what really transpired in Srebrenica in July 1995, now that two Serbian war criminals, Dragan Obrenovic and general Radislav Krstic, have been brought before the Hague tribunal. The chances of Milosevic being tried for war crimes may be slim, but they still appear better than those of finding out the truth about the complicity of French and Dutch officials in the genocide of Srebrenica, let alone that of the UN as a whole. The massacre in Srebrenica was facilitated by the Dutch contingent which was responsible for protecting Srebrenica and Zepa in eastern Bosnia. The French role is even more despicable because UN forces at the time were commanded by the French general, Bernard Janvier, who was very close to the Serb general, Ratko Mladic, another indicted war-criminal, who ordered the Srebrenica massacre.

Srebrenica and five other Bosnian towns were designated by the UN in May 1994 as “safe havens,” and put under the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR). The Bosnians were first completely disarmed. Initially the US had ridiculed the “safe havens” idea; US secretary of state Warren Christopher had described them as shooting galleries and too dangerous even for US troops, but later agreed to them. It is interesting to note that the so-called safe havens were not considered safe for fully armed western troops, yet still supposed to be safe for unarmed civilians. Within a year Srebrenica was attacked and overrun by Serbian forces. In the massacre that followed, an estimated 20,000 civilians, all of them Muslim, were murdered, including children as young as 10 years old. Hundreds of women were raped, although many of them were let go because the Serbs were on a killing spree and wanted to eliminate as many Bosnian men as possible.

Some of the massacre was video-filmed by a Serb cameraman, but the Dutch confiscated the recording because the area lay under their jurisdiction. The video-footage clearly showed Dutch complicity in the massacre. In September 1995 general Hans Couzy, then commander-in-chief of the Dutch army, openly admitted that he had ordered that the video-footage be destroyed because it identified Dutch soldiers. The reason, though not stated, was that they had stood by and done nothing to protect Bosnian civilians; the evidence of the video-tape made them liable to prosecution. In 1999, UN secretary general Kofi Annan belatedly admitted: “We committed unforgivable mistakes in assessing the extent of the evil that we were facing, and because of that we did not succeed in protecting the inhabitants of Srebrenica from the planned attack and massacre.” Annan was being less than honest: the UN forces were complicit in the murder of civilians; the Dutch even helped the Serbs to separate the very young boys from those who were 10 years and older.

Equally dishonest have been the French, who resisted attempts to clarify the role played by general Janvier. There was pressure from a number of organisations, especially the charity Médécins Sans Frontieres, which suspected that Janvier was acting on instructions from the highest levels in the French government, especially then prime minister Alain Juppe, and demanded that his role in the Srebrenica massacre be investigated. Last year the French government reluctantly set up a commission of inquiry. Juppe, who appeared before the commission, denied that he talked about Srebrenica with Janvier. The general, however, gave his testimony behind closed doors after the media and public had been cleared out. Why, if Janvier really had nothing to hide?

The fact is that Janvier gave the Serbs the green light to invade Srebrenica, provided that the UNPROFOR soldiers being held hostage by the Serbs, of whom a large number were French, were released unharmed. Janvier had met Mladic a number of times before the Srebrenica massacre and assured him there would be no UN intervention. This is not mere speculation. When the Serbs surrounded Srebrenica and started to bomb the town, the Dutch contingent called for air-strikes, according to the UN’s “safe heavens” mandate. Janvier obstructed every effort to bomb the Serbs. This is in sharp contrast to the spurious allegations made by French troops at the time: that Bosnian snipers were targeting their own people in order to gain western sympathy! The report was submitted to Boutros Ghali, then UN secretary general, but published only on August 2, 1995, in the New York Times. The timing of the report’s release could not be accidental.

The Dutch cannot be exonerated either, but at least they have shed some light on the role played by Janvier. Two senior Dutch officials, ex-defence minister Joris Voorhoeve and ex-foreign minister Hans van Mierlo, appeared before the French inquiry and insisted that, contrary to Janvier’s claims, the Dutch did not block requests for intervention despite some Dutch soldiers being taken hostage by the Serbs in Srebrenica. The Dutch have now admitted that their troops capitulated to the Serbs, but they are refusing to accept further responsibility.

The Dutch version of Janvier’s role amounts to his being guilty of criminal collusion with the Serbs. But the French inquiry is unlikely to allow the whole truth to emerge. Such commissions are intended to cover up the wrongdoing of high officials in the west, rather than expose them. The Bosnians were put under an arms embargo to prevent them from defending themselves against the marauding Serbs; why should the same west allow the truth to emerge six years later, when the issue has largely been forgotten?

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