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New Report Examines Failure to Protect Bosnian Civilians

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Washington DC—Twenty years after the Dayton peace agreement, a revealing new transcript examines the factors that contributed to the failure to protect thousands of refugees living in so-called “safe areas” in Bosnia. The transcript is the product of a candid twelve-hour conversation with key players representing more than a dozen countries who took part in the United Nations operation to protect Srebrenica. The failure of the international community to safeguard civilians resulted in the largest massacre in Europe since World War II.

Today, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and The Hague Institute for Global Justice, with support from the National Security Archive at George Washington University, are releasing a fully annotated 292-page transcript from a private conference that took place in The Hague from June 29 to July 1, 2015.

“I saw this conference as a kind of truth commission,” said Srebrenica survivor Muhamed Duraković. “Twenty years on, we cannot bring back the dead, but we can learn from what went wrong in Srebrenica. If we are not able to go through the process of fact-finding, truth, and reconciliation, we may be creating problems for future generations.”

The discussion revealed sharp disconnects between the policy-makers in New York, the peacekeepers on the ground, and the people the “safe areas” were ostensibly designed to keep safe. 

Conference participants included Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General Yasushi Akashi; European peace negotiator Carl Bildt; General Sir Rupert Smith, commander of UN forces in Bosnia; former Bosnian Prime Minister Hasan Muratović; and Srebrenica survivor Muhamed Duraković. Also in attendance were three former members of the UN Security Council and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein. Under conference ground rules, the discussions were held behind closed doors, pending the release of an approved transcript with supporting documentation.

“By assembling so many of the key people in the same room, we were able to take a fresh look at international decision making from a variety of different perspectives,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “The goal was to identify moments when international action might have made a difference.”

The Srebrenica symposium was the second in a series of conferences with the theme “International Decision Making in the Age of Genocide” that began in 2014 with an in-depth examination of the Rwandan genocide. The killings of more than 7,000 Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica in July 1995 has also been termed a genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

“If we are serious about preventing future Srebrenicas and Rwandas, we must examine the functioning of the international system as a whole,” said Abiodun Williams, president of The Hague Institute for Global Justice. “We see the same mistakes repeated in countries as different as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Syria.”

Insights that emerged over the course of the 2½ day conference on Bosnia are highlighted in a 55-page rapporteur report (PDF) also released today:

  • Lack of a strategic vision for ending the war. Unable to agree on a workable peace plan for Bosnia prior to July 1995, western leaders adopted a series of stop-gap measures designed to create the impression of “doing something when, in fact, we were not willing to do anything seriously,” according to former Clinton administration official Jenonne Walker.

  • Lack of a clear UN mandate. According to former UN Secretariat official Shashi Tharoor, the UN operation in Bosnia failed because of the lack of a “coherent, clear, implementable mandate” and the “political will” to enforce the mandate.

  • Lack of leadership. UN Human Rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein agreed that “mandates are important and resources and political will are necessary,” but “what also matters is performance.”

Primary source documentation (PDF) from the archives of western governments, the UN, and the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal is being collected by the National Security Archive, and will be released through the websites of the participating institutions. “We want to provide historians, journalists, and scholars with access to the primary source documents that show how decisions were taken in real time,” said Archive Director Tom Blanton.