Yesterday world leaders marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. The Serbian Prime Minister was forced out of the ceremony. Understandably there is much hand-wringing about the complicity of the West, and the UN, in the killing. The performance of the Dutch peacekeepers remains a cause of national shame in the Netherlands (perhaps unfairly, in my opinion – I am not sure what else they were to do cut off from other UNPROFOR forces and without the prospect of air support). Much is being said, and written, this weekend about the failings of UNPROFOR, the UN Protection Force deployed to Bosnia to protect civilian populations from the consequences of the bid by the Bosnian Serbs (and one point the Bosnian Croats too) to carve out their own ethnically cleansed state. Little will be new to me.
I was posted away from the Foreign Office’s Eastern Adriatic Unit (the department responsible for the former Yugoslavia) shortly before the Srebrenica massacre, although I cannot claim that I would have contributed anything to preventing it. Policy making throughout the period I worked on this was beset by one of the worst cases of groupthink I have experienced. Groupthink is an insidious process, which creeps up on even bright thinkers without them being aware of it (and some of the people dealing with Bosnia were very bright). One feature of our groupthink was that air strikes would be ineffective. A second feature was the primacy of UNPROFOR. The two were related. One of the major arguments against air strikes was the risk of retaliation against exposed UNPROFOR units. Another argument was that air strikes alone are seldom effective. In general this may be true, but in the specific circumstances of Bosnia, had we but got our minds outside the groupthink bubble, we would have realized that the outnumbered Bosnian Serb forces depended on the heavy kit they had been gifted by the Yugoslav army, and that this kit had to be kept on the frontline. If this heavy kit had been hit hard by air strikes, the Bosnian Serbs would have been forced to sue for peace, as happened eventually in 1995. But by then tens of thousands more had died.
The dogma of UNPROFOR primacy was equally toxic. UNPROFOR never fulfilled its function of protecting the civilian population, and the level of its performance depended on the quality of national contributions. UNPROFOR had overall rules of engagement (ROE – the rules that lay down when soldiers can open fire), but each national contingent had its own ROE, placing the UNPROFOR commander in an impossible situation. While governments, including mine, formally praised the performance of all contingents, in reality few did well. The former Soviet Republic, whose contingent promptly sold their German provided equipment to the Bosnian Serbs for much needed hard cash was an extreme example, but other contingents sought any excuse to avoid confrontation, favoured coreligionists or allowed local mafias to take over. The major problem was that UNPROFOR provided no real protection to civilian populations, whether Bosniac, Serbian or Croatian. Rather it served only to minimize the consequences of military defeat. So when either side won a military victory, UNPROFOR ensured that it was not critical. In doing so, UNPROFOR served to prolong the war, and prolong the suffering. By prolonging the war, UNPROFOR also increased its brutality as the combatants became inured to violence and indulged in ever crueler massacres. UNPROFOR not only failed to protect Srebrenica, it also created the circumstances in which such a massacre could take place.
But there is a more serious, and broader, question about the ability of the UN to make peace, especially in situations of civil conflict. International institutions reflect the geopolitical balance of the moment of their creation – the geopolitical balance of power is frozen in aspic. As the geopolitical power balance changes over time, the international institution is left behind. It is a form on inbuilt obsolescence for international institutions. This can be seen even with recent organizations. The US, for example, has already abandoned its own creation to impose global trade rules, the WTO, in favour of geopolitically determined regional trade groups (TPP and TTIP). The power structure of the UN, and in particular the functioning of the Security Council, was quickly overtaken by the Cold War. The Security Council proved to have an inbuilt block on effective action to prevent war or secure peace. Effective Chapter VII action has been authorized only rarely, when the Soviet Union was boycotting the Council, when Yeltsin’s Russia lay subservient to US policy or when the West deceived Russia and China about the scope of humanitarian protection in Libya. Otherwise action under Chapter VII has been blocked by one or other of the permanent members, and is likely to continue so into the future. With limits on effective military action, the UN has instead focused on peacekeeping missions, naming special representatives of the UN Secretary General to act as mediators between the parties.
This approach is drenched in Wilsonian optimism about human nature, and that reasonable men can always be brought to reasonable agreements. More seriously, it is built upon a principle of impartiality between the parties, granting the parties equal moral and political status. This can be highly problematic. In Bosnia it meant granting Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs equal moral status. When the Bosnian Muslim government objected to signing agreements with the Serbian leaders who were ordering the ethnic cleansing of their villages and the bombardment of Sarajevo, they were criticized for blocking the peace process. It was a curious example of blaming the victim for refusing to agree the scope of his torture with the torturer. Eventually Srebrenica forced the west to act. The US insisted on effective air strikes against Bosnian Serb positions and UNPROFOR commander Sir Rupert Smith ignored the ROE to attack them with artillery. Facing military defeat, the Serbs caved and the peace agreement was hammered out at Dayton.
The true lesson of Bosnia for the UN (and the West) should have been that impartiality in civil conflicts does not work. Granting both sides moral equivalence is not only ethically obnoxious, it is also ineffective in ending the conflict and reducing the suffering. The conflict in Bosnia ended when the West chose sides and then gave that side sufficient military support to force the other side to the negotiating table. It was essential that Bosnian Muslim military success was sufficiently dependent on western support that their government was forced to agree reasonable terms with the defeated Serbs. In Croatia, where the US had equipped the Croatian army to the point where it could attack the Croatian Serbs with no direct western support, no such reasonable terms were on offer. The Croatians cleared the Krajina of Serbs in as bloody a piece of ethnic cleansing as seen in Bosnia. The general point is that to end civil conflict you must choose sides and then support that side sufficiently to bring the other side to the negotiating table, but no further. At that point the diplomats can hammer out the agreement as the threat of military defeat hangs over both sides (because you can renew or withdraw support from your chosen side). Attempts at maintaining neutrality or impartiality only allows you to be drawn into the conflict itself, as both sides attempt to use the international mediator against the other. The mediator becomes another weapon to be used in the propaganda war.
That the UN has not learnt the lesson can be seen from the travails of UNSMIL in Libya. The Head of UNSMIL Bernadino Leon has determinedly sought to remain neutral between the parties as he shuttles between them to create a Government of National Union (GNU). Like Consultancy Companies like McKinsey with their programme for every situation, the UN has a playbook from which its representative can draw the road map towards a solution for any kind of conflict. The road maps are inevitably generic, and pay little attention to the realities of the situation. The GNU is a vital part of the road map. It does not matter if it is viable, or can agree forward looking strategies. Just securing agreement to form one allows the UN mediator to tick another box and announce a success. In Libya even this seems to elude poor Leon. His latest efforts in Morocco have secured an agreement between the Tobruk-based government and the municipal councils, but the Tripoli-based government and its militia remain absent. Although Leon offers optimism that they might join later, such are the differences between the Tobruk and Tripoli governments that it is difficult to see what a viable agreement that could form the basis of sustainable GNU would look like. The situation is of course a reversal from that a few weeks ago, when supporters of the Tobruk government sought to prevent Leon from traveling to Tripoli. Meanwhile, Islamic State has seized on the chaos to install itself in Libya and is now entrenched in Sirte and Benghazi. Even if Leon achieves his prize of the GNU, it is highly unlikely to enjoy sufficient internal coherence to expel Islamic State without considerable outside support. But to the extent that the new GNU is seen as a creation, or imposition, of foreigners, it could itself strengthen support for Islamic State.
None of this is intended as criticism of Bernadino Leon himself. He has struggled manfully to fulfill his mandate under impossible conditions. Rather it is the general point that matters: the UN’s approach to peace-making in conflict situations, based on impartiality and generic road-maps, does not work, and only prolongs the conflict and increases the suffering. In Bosnia it prolonged the war for 4 years and created the conditions in which Srebrenica could happen. In Libya it has prolonged the crisis, allowed the infiltration of Islamic State and the illegal migrant crisis and destroyed the economy. Conflicts are resolved when one side prevails. The role of the international community, if it wants one, is to decide which side will win and then ensure that at the point of victory the loser gets his due. Until this lesson is learned, the UN will go on paving the road to hell with its good intentions.