The Hague, 10 April 2002
"Dutchbat had to keep the peace where there was no peace"
Humanitarian motivation and political ambitions drove the Netherlands to undertake an ill-conceived and virtually impossible peace mission
In 1993 a combination of humanitarian motivation and political ambitions led the Dutch cabinet, on its own initiative and without prior conditions, to make an Air Mobile Battalion available for the UNPROFOR mission in Bosnia. This took place amid wide political and media support and without a proper analysis of the far-reaching consequences beforehand. These were among the factors which led to Dutchbat being destined for Srebrenica, which had been turned down by other countries with arguments to back up their refusal, and being given the task of keeping the peace in a so-called 'safe' area where there was no peace. By playing down the possible risks of the behaviour of the warring parties so much, a large circle of those involved in this policy, and in particular its advocates, took on a large responsibility for an ill-conceived and virtually impossible mission.
This is the conclusion reached by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) in the report that is being made public today of its historical inquiry into the events before, during and after the fall of Srebrenica. The first copy of the report of the inquiry will be presented today in The Hague by NIOD director and head of the investigation, Prof. J.C.H. Blom, to the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Mr L.M.L.H.A. Hermans, on behalf of the cabinet. The report is entitled Srebrenica, a 'safe' area - Reconstruction, background, consequences and analyses of the fall of a safe area. With the approval of parliament, the government commissioned the NIOD to carry out this inquiry in November 1996.
When everything is taken into account, the analysis by the NIOD shows that Dutchbat was dispatched at the time:
- on a mission with a very unclear mandate
- to a zone described as a 'safe area' although there was no clear definition of what that meant
- to keep the peace where there was no peace
- without obtaining in-depth information from the Canadian predecessors in the enclave (Canbat)
- without adequate training for this specific task in those specific circumstances
- virtually without the resources and capacities for collecting intelligence in order to gauge the political and military intentions of the warring parties
- with misplaced confidence in the readiness to deploy air power if problems arose, and without any clear exit strategy.
Dutchbat and the political and military leadership in the Netherlands were badly prepared for what lay in store in the enclave. Little, if any, attempt was made to obtain information from Canbat or the Canadian government about their experiences. Moreover, the Military Intelligence Service did not receive sufficient extra resources to collect additional intelligence, and this service was not involved enough in the decision-making on Srebrenica. The Cabinet, the Ministry of Defence and the Dutch Parliament adopted an anti-intelligence attitude. As a result, far fewer observational data were obtained than was technically possible. The United States had the strongest intelligence position in Bosnia. The Netherlands could have benefited from this, but lack of interest and the negative attitude of the military and political leadership stood in the way. The army top repeatedly turned down an offer by the US to smuggle advanced espionage equipment into the enclave to tap the communications of the hostile Bosnian forces (ABiH and VRS). Defence thereby missed the opportunity to strengthen its own information position in the field of intelligence in return.
After the attack on the enclave at the beginning of July 1995, from a military perspective Dutchbat had few grounds for mounting a counterattack on its own initiative, according to the inquiry, especially because of the limited mandate:
- active defence of the enclave by military means was not in accordance with the mandate, the UN policy (the maintenance of impartiality) or the Rules of Engagement
- the instruction was for military reaction to be above all reticent
- military means could only be deployed if the safety of the battalion was in danger and if it was the target of direct fire - the 'smoking gun' requirement -which the VRS deliberately avoided
- the military balance of power was such that, without outside support, Dutchbat (200 lightly armed combat soldiers) would have been defenceless against the VRS in a serious confrontation
- as a result of the 'stranglehold strategy' (the blockade policy of the Bosnian Serbs), Dutchbat III was no longer a fully operational battalion in terms of manpower, supplies or morale.
Action on its own initiative was not an available option
The question of whether another battalion, in a different condition, would have acted differently is impossible to answer. In terms of political psychology, it was conceivable that, from fear of a negative reputation for the Bosnian Serbs, the commander of the Bosnian Serbian army (VRS), general Mladic, would have held back from armed resistance with the risk of victims on the UNPROFOR side. His decision to press on to Srebrenica - and to occupy not a small part but the whole of the enclave - was primarily motivated by the lack of any significant resistance by both Muslim forces and the UN. This indicates that such considerations did play a role with the VRS. However, action by Dutchbat on its own initiative contrary to the instructions was not an available option; the initiative for that would have had to come from the higher UN echelons.
The Dutchbat expectation that help would come from outside on the morning of 11 July in the form of massive air strikes was misguided. The UNPROFOR command had completely ruled out air strikes, but was also extremely reticent about lighter support from the air in the form of Close Air Support. It hereby crushed the Dutchbat illusion and the enclave became an easy target for the VRS. The NIOD does not subscribe to the hypothesis of a secret deal between the French commander Janvier and the VRS general Mladic to withhold the air support requested by Dutchbat in exchange for an earlier release of French hostages. Even without such a deal, Mladic could understand that combat from the air was extremely hazardous for the UN as long as there were still ground troops in the enclave.
The tragic nadir of the fall of Srebrenica was the mass killing of thousands of Muslim men by Bosnian Serbian units. A large number of the men killed were members of the Bosnian Muslim army (ABiH) who had attempted to break out of the enclave to Tuzla with some of the male population during the night of 11 July. The decision to break out and thus to give up further resistance was taken entirely outside the UN and UNPROFOR. This outbreak was a complete surprise, and it came at a very bad time for the VRS. Along with the already existing hatred, eagerness for revenge and the wish for ethnic cleansing, it was one of the factors that led the Bosnian Serbs to settle accounts harshly with the Muslim population of the enclave. This turned into an organised mass slaughter, but it is not the case that it took place "under the eyes of Dutchbat".
On the days after the fall of the enclave, the efforts of Dutchbat were aimed at preventing the humanitarian disaster which seemed imminent in Potocari. To that end it cooperated, albeit reluctantly, with the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilian refugees. Although those refugees were themselves very keen to leave, in the given circumstances this was tantamount to collaborating with ethnic cleansing. The battalion command realised that the fate of the men, who were separated from the women and children, was uncertain, but not that it would end in the mass slaughter of these and many other men who fell into the hands of the Bosnian Serbs during their flight to Tuzla. In Potocari - in the vicinity of Dutchbat - at least 100 men were killed on the spot during a local settling of scores. Much more went on here than the members of Dutchbat witnessed. But not all of what they saw was reported at the time. The communication and assessment of the available information were a complete failure at the time.
The army top discounted the possibility of Dutchbat seeing what was going on right from the first reports by refugees in Tuzla about massive abuses of human rights. It did so because of uncertainty about what had happened and to preserve the image of Dutchbat and the army. This attitude also characterised the later debriefing processes. The NIOD inquiry concludes that the army top made a deliberate attempt, contrary to the wishes of the Minister, to limit the flow of information and, where possible, to avoid sensitive issues.