Presentation speech

Professor J.C.H. Blom, Director of the RIOD, April 10, 2002.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

At least seven-and-a-half thousand Bosnian Muslims went missing; it is virtually certain that all of them were killed. Around six thousand of these people were slaughtered in mass executions. This is the sad balance of the events of July 1995 that followed the Bosnian-Serbian army’s capture of Srebrenica, which had been declared a United Nations ‘Safe Area’ in 1993. These atrocities have evoked deep emotions from the moment that they became known in the outside world

Dutch troops (Dutchbat) were present at the fall of Srebrenica as a part of UNPROFOR, the UN peacekeeping force. Therefore, the ensuing debate was particularly heated in the Netherlands and generated a powerful undercurrent. There were numerous uncertainties about exactly what had occurred.

It was against this background that the Dutch government asked the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in 1996 to set up independent, historical research into the events that took place before, during and after the enclave’s fall. The Institute’s then-director and board trustees felt that it was a social duty to comply with this request, no matter how hard that task would be.

Despite the nature and scale of the problems involved with this kind of research, it has been possible to draw on a remarkable number of sources. Thanks to the cooperation of, in particular, the Dutch government and the United Nations, tens of thousands of normally inaccessible documents in archives and private collections both at home and abroad could be consulted during the course of this research. More than nine hundred individuals of extremely diverse backgrounds and origins were prepared to be interviewed.

The research took a long time to complete. This was necessary not only to encompass the enormous quantity of information about the different kinds of complicated, interwoven processes but also to meet the academic requirements of depth and precision. The report is extremely extensive too because this was the only way of fulfilling the original request: to create a reconstruction of the events that is as accurate and complete as possible, and to provide an explanatory historical analysis.

I would like to draw your attention briefly to the most important findings. Here, the central question concerns the involvement and responsibility of both institutions and individuals at every relevant level.

The ‘Srebrenica tragedy' can only be understood in the context of former Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration. The fact that conflict broke out there at the beginning of the 1990s is due to the nationalist leaders, who seemed willing to achieve their objectives by brute force, and to the population’s sense of insecurity and fear that led to the acceptance of violence as the only means of defence.

Yugoslavia’s collapse was the result of a multifaceted process in which President Milosevic of Serbia played a decisive role by embracing nationalism in an attempt to sustain his position of power. However, the nationalism of leaders elsewhere in Yugoslavia was also influential, and particularly that of President Tudjman of Croatia. While Croatia entered into a state of war with the Yugoslav army and Serbian paramilitaries, Tudjman was still drawing up agreements with Milosevic about the division of Bosnia-Hercegovina where only a mini Muslim state would be allowed to remain.

The war in Bosnia that broke out in April 1992 was not caused by the European Community’s premature recognition, as has often been claimed, it occurred because it was generated by the parties within the region itself. On the whole, the West could only exert a limited influence on the chain of events in former Yugoslavia, and this was certainly true for as long as there was no preparedness to intervene on a massive scale. Cease-fire agreements, which the West viewed as being diplomatic successes, were simply consciously-chosen breathing spaces for the warring factions that allowed them to prepare for the next phase of conflict. The West’s peace plans failed to pour oil on troubled waters, and in fact they frequently intensified hostilities. The West mainly attempted to limit the conflict and to provide humanitarian aid.

But negotiations and humanitarian aid also limited the possibility for actual intervention: armed action could thwart peace talks and could result in a suspension of aid. The West became the hostage of its own approach and ended up in a scenario of ‘muddling through’. The UN’s attempts at impartiality meant that the peacekeeping troops were hated by all sides in the conflict.

It was in this context that the French General Morillon was taken hostage by the people of Srebrenica, when he visited the Eastern Bosnian enclave in March 1993. He was only able to leave once he had promised the enclave’s residents that they were under UN protection. Shortly afterwards, not only Srebrenica, but also five other Muslim enclaves were declared Safe Areas.

However, these areas were in no way safe because they were not demilitarized, the surrounding Serbian troops had not withdrawn to a safe distance and the peacekeeping force that was stationed in these enclaves was too small for either protection or defence. In addition, the Safe Areas had less to do with the reality of Bosnia-Hercegovina than with the need to achieve a compromise in the Security Council and with the wish to diminish the tensions that had arisen between the United States and Europe concerning the right approach.

The eccentrically-located Srebrenica was the unwanted child amongst these Safe Areas. At the end of 1993, no country was prepared to station its troops there after the Canadian government had announced its intention of withdrawing its forces. The Dutch government, which had been at the forefront of the international call for more decisive intervention, felt that it had no choice but to fill this vacancy in the UN’s plans.

Being at the forefront was the result of the government’s previous interest in alleviating humanitarian suffering in Bosnia. Its strongly-worded statements meant that the Dutch government was ultimately forced to practise what it preached through a military contribution in the form of combat troops. Only the Dutch Air Mobile Brigade was eligible for consideration here, a conclusion that had already been reached in August 1992.

Yet it was neither the parliament nor the media that forced the government to deploy a battalion of the Air Mobile Brigade at the end of 1993. Instead it was at the instigation of the Dutch government itself as headed by its ministers Lubbers and Van den Broek, along with Kooijmans who succeeded Van den Broek at the beginning of 1993. The initial hesitation of Minister Ter Beek of Defence was partly dispelled by the desire for action from some sections of the Dutch Army that wanted to demonstrate the capabilities of its showpiece Air Mobile Brigade at a time of cut-backs. The political world paid little heed to the fact that this had been criticized by other sections of the Army.

This was to have far-reaching consequences. In 1993, the Dutch government provided not only the supporting troops that already operated within the context of the UN but also a battalion of the Air Mobile Brigade. No conditions were stipulated in advance. In practice, Dutchbat was sent:

  • on a mission with an unclear mandate
  • to a location that was described as a Safe Area but where there was no clear definition of what that actually meant
  • to keep the peace where no peace existed
  • without obtaining in-depth information from its Canadian predecessors in the enclave
  • without adequate training for this specific task in these specific circumstances
  • effectively deprived of the means and capacity for obtaining intelligence so as to gauge the warring factions’ political and military intentions
  • an unfounded trust in the willingness of the higher echelons of the UN leadership to deploy air power in the event of difficulties
  • without a clear exit strategy of its own.

This was gambling on a future where the relations in the region would stabilize. Naturally no one could predict just how serious the problems for the UN mission would have become by 1995. But the broad circle of those involved with this policy, and particularly its advocates, must bear a considerable responsibility for disregarding the difficulties once the behaviour of the warring factions got out of hand.

Although Dutch politics sent Dutchbat to Srebrenica with a mixture of compassion and ambition, it naturally ended up in the UN’s scenario of ‘muddling through’. This inevitably led to great disappointment and made it increasingly difficult for Dutchbat to function over the course of time. The everyday situation in the enclave was nothing like the ideal with which the troops were originally dispatched. The successive battalions had to perform their work under circumstances that were both frustrating and ultimately demotivating. The meagre and problematic contact with the population and the inadequate communication with the outside world resulted in an attitude of introversion.

This mission was considerably complicated by the fact that the agreed demilitarization had scarcely been implemented. Moreover, new weapons had actually been smuggled into the enclave. Right from the beginning, Dutchbat was stuck between the warring factions. The Bosnian-Serbian army (the VRS) intensified the siege in the course of time by increasingly obstructing supply convoys. This was a part of its strategy for creating a situation that would be untenable in humanitarian terms so that the enclave would fall into the hands of the Serbs. For its part, the Bosnian government army (the ABiH) focused on deploying limited actions that would tie up a relatively high percentage of the VRS manpower. This involved attacks on villages outside of the enclave, which could include looting and acts of vengeance, and firing on the VRS from positions that purposely included the vicinity of the Dutchbat troops who were then at risk of being caught up in crossfire.

In particular, Dutchbat III came under immense pressure when hostilities again intensified in May 1995. The VRS isolation strategy resulted in the battalion becoming understrength, emergency rations and restricted movement. Commander Karremans was forced to announce at the beginning of June that Dutchbat III could no longer be regarded as fully operational. This opinion was shared by Force Commander Janvier.

Eastern Bosnia was not the main theatre of the wars in former Yugoslavia, even in Bosnia. Nonetheless the VRS increased its activities around the enclaves there at the beginning of July 1995. Here, the aim was first and foremost to decrease the size of the Safe Area of Srebrenica and to control the strategically-important road to the south of the enclave. This would also sever the connection between Srebrenica and Zepa.

The battle plan for the attack was drawn up on 2 July; the attack itself began on 6 July. It was so successful and met with so little resistance that the VRS decided on 9 July to push on and to see whether it was possible to conquer the entire enclave. A triumphant General Mladic of the VRS entered Srebrenica on 11 July. The Safe Area had fallen.

The ABiH’s resistance was also viewed by the Bosnians as being inadequate. However, the 28th Division was already in a poor state before the attack and fled with a part of the male civilian population. The remaining population moved in desperation to the Dutchbat compound in Potocari, a small village just outside of Srebrenica. Although it was not one of the warring factions, Dutchbat had effectively become a defeated battalion in the power of the VRS.

The story of both the attack and the fall is described and analysed in detail in this report. Here, a central question is why the UN troops did not attempt to stop the VRS by deploying powerful military resources. The answer can be summed up in a number of points:

  • the enclave’s active defence would not have been in accordance with the mandate and with the UN’s chosen line
  • this in turn meant that the instructions specified that there should be no military response
  • directed fire could only be permitted when the UN troops’ safety was endangered; however, the VRS carefully moved around all the established blocking positions
  • the military balance of power meant that Dutchbat never stood a chance in any situation of combat
  • there was considerable hesitation at the Zagreb headquarters (Janvier and Akashi) about whether to deploy air power; massive air strikes were certainly excluded.

A speculative footnote can be added to the question concerning the effectiveness of UNPROFOR’s possible military resistance. These particular circumstances concerned more than simply military power relations. It is not impossible to imagine that, on a political and psychological level, the VRS (Mladic) would have baulked at a fight that could have resulted in UNPROFOR casualties. The fact that the decision to advance towards Srebrenica was prompted by the absence of opposition indicates these considerations played a role.

On the basis of these considerations, Janvier and Akashi could, for instance, have deviated from the existing policy by taking the initiative and mounting active opposition. But this did not occur. In addition, the Dutchbat leadership also did not decide to ignore instructions or to put up an active fight. The battalion’s general state, the effect of the killing of a soldier called Van Renssen in a Muslim action and the absence of the much-heralded air power made it difficult to even consider the idea.

The low point of all the events described in this report is the mass murder of thousands of Muslim men. Most of them had tried to escape to Tuzla during and after the fall of Srebrenica. Many soldiers and civilians perished during that journey. Thousands of prisoners were murdered.

It is unlikely that mass murder of this form and magnitude had been planned much in advance. The attempted escape came as an unpleasant surprise to the VRS. Mladic had just declared victory in Srebrenica and wanted to concentrate on conquering Zepa in the south. But he now found himself confronted with a military and logistical problem to the north of Srebrenica.

The VRS’s fury was mixed with old feelings of hatred and vengeance along with the desire for ethnic cleansing. All this led to the decision to execute the prisoners on a massive scale. The events cannot be described as an act of vengeance that got out of hand. Although they occurred rapidly and in an improvized way, the scale and course of the murders clearly indicate that they were organized. Places of execution were sought, transport was arranged and troops were ordered to carry out the executions. The fact that the operation was spread out over several days and the VRS worked at solving logistical problems once again underlines the sense of intention.

Although no written order has been found, there is no doubt that responsibility mainly lies with General Mladic and that the circle of officers around him must share that responsibility. As the supreme commander, Karadzic formally ordered the separation of Srebrenica and Zepa, and later the capture of the entire enclave. However, it is unclear whether he was informed in advance about the mass murders. Karadzic’s relations with Mladic were poor and they did not communicate effectively. No evidence has been found that suggests the involvement of the Serbian authorities in Belgrade.

Could these murders have been prevented and could Dutchbat have played a role here? In terms of answering this question, it is important to establish that during those days the UN, the Bosnian government and most of the media had no idea that mass murder was about to take place. The image that has been created of thousands of men being killed ‘right under Dutchbat’s nose’ is untrue. The murders took place elsewhere.

Nonetheless, the Dutchbat troops, who were taken hostage by the VRS, did see things that were later interpreted as indications of mass murder. They reported their observations on 15, 16 and 17 July. Neither the UN nor The Hague concluded that this indicated mass murder. The Commander-in-Chief of the Netherlands’ Army, General Couzy, who received the hostages in Zagreb, did not publicize these reports. On 17 July, he convinced the Dutch television program NOVA not to broadcast the troops’ evidence before the entire battalion was safe. Couzy subsequently did not attach any particular significance to this evidence. In fact, the murders had been virtually completed by the time that the initial reports reached both him and the media on around 17 July.

Questions also concern the dramatic events around the Dutchbat compound in Potocari. Commander Karremans tried in vain to negotiate with Mladic and to keep the initiative for transporting the population. However, he was no match for Mladic and received insufficient support from the UN. Hence, he was forced to accept Mladic’s demand to screen the men for war criminals. Mladic broke his promise by accelerating the transportation. From then on, Dutchbat was overtaken by events.

Here, the battalion’s leaders felt that the only choice was to co-operate; otherwise there was the risk of a major humanitarian disaster that would be caused by extremely poor hygiene, and a lack of food and water. Armed resistance was not an option here because the VRS would have probably slaughtered the refugees. Some of the Dutchbat troops, including Deputy Commander Franken, were concerned about the fate of the men. However, Franken never expected mass murder. He felt that the interests of the thousands of women and children should come before the uncertain fate of the male minority. There had to be no delay in transportation. This led to painful but conscious decisions.

Hence, Dutchbat did not oppose the separation of the men from the women. But no evidence has been found to suggest that Dutchbat played a role in that selection. The fact that the VRS screened the men was viewed as being a not-unusual action in terms of the laws and customs of war. It was only during that process that some of the Dutchbat troops began to suspect that a far worse fate awaited the separated men than a prisoner-of-war-camp. Most of these men were finally murdered outside of the enclave along with those who had tried to escape.

A shocking conclusion is that a large number of men were also murdered in the immediate vicinity of the compound. Mladic created the opportunity for the local Bosnian Serbs to commit acts of vengeance. Although it is impossible to establish precise figures, it has been concluded that these acts resulted in somewhere between one hundred and four hundred deaths. These figures are far higher than what had been suspected on the basis of Dutchbat’s estimates.

This discrepancy can partly be explained by the fact that the perpetrators had largely managed to evade Dutchbat’s attention. But it has since become clear that Dutchbat troops saw more than was reported or communicated either at that point or subsequently. There are a number of possible explanations. On 12 and 13 July, the internal communication and reporting systems were largely ineffective. This meant that the battalion’s leadership had little information and was unable to estimate the value of the reports that got through. The leadership viewed the few reports as incidents, which was how this also seemed to be interpreted in Sarajevo. The events were to be traumatic for many of the Dutchbat troops. In turn, this was the reason why they only told their stories at a later point in time or simply said nothing at all except to professionals whom they consulted for psychological problems.

Even if these circumstances could explain the lack of reporting during the first few days, the question still remains unanswered as to why the leadership did not make a determined effort to investigate the battalion’s observations, especially after 13 July when things had quietened down. High-level UN officials must share this responsibility because they did not provide instructions even though they soon received information from the refugees in Tuzla. This illustrates the subordinate role played by humanitarian reporting in UNPROFOR. However, once again the question is whether the systematic gathering and analysis of evidence would have led to results that could have obstructed the mass murders that, as previously stated, had been virtually completed by 17 July.

Clearly this was not possible as a result of the debriefing of the main body of Dutchbat in Zagreb on 22 and 23 July. However, it must be stated that little attention was paid to human rights abuses and that General Couzy created the impression that things were not as bad as they seemed. His position, along with that of Karremans with his utterance, suggested by the media adviser of the Army, of ‘no good guys, no bad guys’, contributed to an about-turn in the media where relative benevolence towards Dutchbat was transformed into an extremely critical attitude towards both the battalion and the Dutch Ministry of Defence. From being a Balkans tragedy, in a certain sense ‘Srebrenica’ had now become a Dutch affair.

The most important criticism of Dutchbat concerned a mass murder that the battalion had been unable to prevent. Dutchbat troops failed to recognize themselves in this scenario because they had experienced a different reality. For instance, the video images of troops dancing arm in arm in Zagreb were wrongly taken to be a sign of their indifference to mass murder. This image was simply incorrect. Most of the soldiers were still completely unaware of the disaster and the video images had also been taken out of context. They in fact depict several dozen troops letting off steam after a spontaneous memorial event for their colleagues Raviv van Renssen and Jeffrey Broere who had been killed.

Remarkably, this footage had been provided to the media by the Ministry of Defence in an attempt to counter the criticism that there was a lack of information. Both ignorance and obstinacy played a role in the supplying of this information. Certainly much of it was reported by Dutchbat troops at an early or later stage, but was not sufficiently valued. It was the media that subsequently retrieved this data. The Ministry of Defence’s unsatisfactory reactions simply strengthened the suspicion this was an attempt to whitewash the reputation of both Dutchbat and the Army. And this indeed played a role alongside ignorance and poor communications between the department and the Army.

Minister Voorhoeve wanted broadly-based, comprehensive research to meet the demand for information. The Army leadership had a more limited view of the preferred type of debriefing and the extent of public information. Although the minister remained responsible, he nonetheless allowed the Army to leave its mark on the debriefing. The minister did not want to repudiate the Army publicly and this in turn made him a prisoner of the debriefing report. The consequence was that the minister was increasingly overtaken by developments and new revelations.

The Army leadership’s attempt to maintain a limited flow of information and to avoid unacceptable subjects as much possible was to rebound like a boomerang. Srebrenica continued to dominate the media with great regularity. In a number of respects, this virtually paralyzed the entire defence organization. Minister Voorhoeve did not manage to resolve the situation. Hence, the Ministry of Defence remained at the heart of the Dutch aftermath of Srebrenica. By contrast, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs remained relatively unscathed despite the fact that it had been the driving force behind the policy that had brought Dutchbat to Srebrenica. Despite its hesitations, the Dutch Army had loyally complied with that policy and had even provided its showpiece Air Mobile Brigade. Yet the attempts to protect the showpiece’s image would continue to damage both the Army and the Ministry of Defence for years to come.

In the Netherlands, the ‘Srebrenica affair’ was central to the debate about Yugoslavia. By contrast, the enclave rarely received this level of attention in former Yugoslavia. Generally, it was a secondary drama with a limited priority. However, the fall of Srebrenica and particularly the mass murders were a factor that contributed to the turnabout in the Bosnian war in the summer of 1995. This resulted in the Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia on 21 November 1995.

The debate concerning the violent disintegration of the federal state of Yugoslavia and the international intervention there has been fully conducted at all levels as it will continue to be in political, moral and humanitarian terms. And it will also be debated historically. It is in this respect that the research of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation aims at providing a thorough and comprehensive contribution. First and foremost, we hope not only to build on the knowledge of the dramatic events that took place during the fall of the Srebrenica enclave, but also to add to the insight into the broadly-based context where these events could occur. Hence, the report can form a solid, factual basis for the continuation of this much-needed debate within both politics and society. Clearly the heart of the matter concerns the tragedy in the Balkans rather than the affair in the Netherlands.