Why the United Nations Hesitated in Bosnia-Herzegovina

The United Nations (UN) faces many problems, both internally and externally, as the monitor of world order. Many of these problems were highlighted in the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict. In July 1995, the Srebrenica massacre resulted in the death of over 7000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the alleged UN sanctioned “safe haven” from the ethnic cleansing that had persisted in Bosnia since 1992. Srebrenica had been under the safeguard of UN peacekeeping forces, UNPROFOR, which proved entirely ineffectual at protecting Bosnian citizens.

Although UN peacekeepers had been present in the country since before the conflict began in April 1992, no decisive action was taken to stop the mass rapes, ethnic cleansings, torture, and other extreme human rights violations of millions of people. This begs the question, why did the UN hesitate to enforce interventions in the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict, regardless of the obvious and brutal violations of human rights?

The UN hesitated to use any force in the Bosnian conflict due to contradictions within the UN Charter, questions on the nature of the conflict, the refusal of members to abide by collective security and submit necessary forces for action, and the increasing concern for the UN’s reputation. The conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina was rooted in tensions between separate nationalist groups of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), which was composed of six national republics, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia, each with different cultural and religious backgrounds.

In 1948, the SFRY split from the USSR and began its own socialist government. When the Cold War ended in 1991, the SFRY dissolved into individual transnational states (Rogel p. 14). The issue of how sovereignty should be determined, by republics or national groups, then became the major dilemma for the former SFRY. The Serbs insisted all Serbian nationals, regardless of republic of residence, should be a part of “Greater Serbia”, requiring the remodeling of republic boundaries (Rogelp. 31).

However, Serbians were interspersed among other groups throughout the republics, thus the creation of a Greater Serbia was unfeasible. The concept of the sovereignty based on nationality was especially problematic for Bosnia-Herzegovina, who’s population in 1991 comprised 43. 7% Bosnian Muslims, 31. 4% Serbs, and 17. 3% Croats (Burg, Shoup p. 27). At the same time, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman advocated for Croatian nationalism and historical claims to Bosnia.

In 1981, Tudjman wrote a book in which he rationalized uniting Croatia and Bosnia- Herzegovina as one republic due to strong historical, geographic, and economic ties. He argued that separating these two states makes “the territorial and geographic position of Croatia extremely unnatural in the economic sense and, therefore…very unfavorable for life and development” (Tudjman p. 124). These justifications for power by Serbia and Croatia would escalate before rupturing into war between the three distinct nationalities of Bosnia.

On June 25, 1991, Slovenia and Croatia both declared independence, leading to an attack on Croatia by Serbia. It was in response to the Croatian War that the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), which played a vital role in the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict, was established in January 1992. Concurrently in Bosnia, Bosnian Serbs declared Serbian autonomous regions in an effort to pursue the Greater Serbia ideal (Rogel p. 31). Soon after, on April 6, 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence and in May 1992, Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia were all inducted as members of the United Nation.

The conflict in Bosnia began in April 1992 and quickly intensified. News of concentration camps reached Western media in the summer of 1992 (Bert p. xv). The Red Cross and later the CIA (New York Times) confirmed that the Serbs were most at fault for the atrocities. A report by Bosnia to the Security Council in October 1992 detailed the situation in the country (HRC). The report recounted hundreds of instances of ethnic cleansing and untold numbers of concentration camps. Those who were not placed in concentration camps were forced into exile.

The number of people forcefully displaced from different regions all accounted for 42-72% of that regions’ total population (HRC, 62), with a total estimate of about 1,800,000 people exiled. The total number of people killed and wounded is unavailable due to the lack of data from camps, but an obscene amount were children. People were illegally arrested, tortured, and killed, property was taken or destroyed, and cultural and religious markers were ruined. At least 20,000 people were raped (Rogel p. 32). Many cities were under constant siege and deprived of food, water, electricity, and medicine.

The end of the report calls the UN to action by stating, “These criminal acts are clearly part of war crimes against the civilians, war prisoners, and humanity and must be treated as such” (HRC, 66). Although the Serbs were clearly breaching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter, the UN hesitated to become involved beyond economic sanctions and UNPROFOR efforts for a number of reasons. For one, the nature of the conflict as a civil war or a war of aggression was unclear. Article 2 of the UN charter forbids the UN from intervening in domestic matters.

Borrowing Shoup and Burg’s definition of civil war as an “internal war among groups unable to agree on arrangements for sharing power” (p. 191), the conflict could be classified as a civil war between the Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. However, when considering the Bosnian Serbs were acting in the interests and under the command of a foreign entity, Serbia, this argument collapses. Yet many Western leaders were still reluctant to intervene, including U. S. Secretary of State James Baker who labeled the conflict a “regional dispute” (Burg, Shoup p. 201). In contrast, many Western leaders viewed the war as an act of aggression.

In a letter to Bill Clinton in 1993, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher describes the Bosnia conflict as a “case of clearcut aggression against a member of the U. N” and refers to the people of Bosnia as “victims of brutal aggression”(Thatcher p. 136-7). By recognizing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s independence and admitting it into the UN, the organization inherently recognized the country as a sovereign entity entitled to the protection against “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (UN Charter, Article 2).

Thatcher urged the UN to take immediate, decisive, and forceful action and emphasized the necessity of sending a message that the international community will not allow such brutality to go unpunished. Contradictions within the UN Charter presented the organization with barriers to involvement, namely whether the UN represents the people or the states of the world and the ambiguity of self-determination versus territorial integrity. The purposes of the United Nations stated in Article 1 are concerned with the maintenance of peace, security, cooperation, and friendly relations between nations.

While it does mention the importance of equal rights and self-determination, it is only in the context of preserving world peace. The principles stated in Article 2 exclusively refer to nations, differentiating only between members and non-members while not mentioning the nations’ peoples whatsoever. Membership is limited to nations, therefore it is chiefly nations, not their peoples, who regulate the policies and programs of the organization (Barnett p. 134). In fact, it was only after the safety of UNPROFOR troops was jeopardized that the UN authorized any action against the aggressors (Zacklin p.57), indicating the preeminence of the major power’s interests and a disregard for the tormented people of Bosnia.

Article 2 also affords members protection of territorial integrity, while Article 1 and 55 both state that peaceful relations must be based on the principle of self-determination. These two concepts are not always mutually exclusive, yet Bosnia was newly self-determined after the dissolution of the SFRY and it’s territorial integrity had just been recognized when it was added to the UN. In addition, Article 1 makes it clear self-determination is meant to preserve peace.

The claims made by Bosnian Serbs and Croats were misguided because they were bent on self-determination at the costs of other cultures. The major Western powers’ unwillingness to commit to military action made it impossible to for the UN to enforce any policies mandated by the Security Council or Secretariat. The U. S. agreed to support humanitarian relief efforts passed by the Council but would not attempt a unilateral or forceful solution (Bert p. 165). No member states saw their “vital national interests at stake” (Burg, Shoup p.201), as Secretary of State James Baker put it, and therefore would never act unilaterally.

The actions the UN takes are determined by the interests of the Western powers, not the principles of human rights or international treaties (Sadkovich p. 287). Although Article 43 of the Charter requires the collective security of all members of the UN, the Security Council lacks its own internal enforcement and relied solely on the armed forces of its members, therefore, it had no method of commanding members to act.

In addition, at least three of the permanent Council members were averse to action; the U. S. and Britain because neither saw the conflict as its problem and Russia because of its alliance with Serbia. The United Nations also hesitated to forcefully intervene in Bosnia because of the growing concern for the organization’s needs, reputation, and future. It is unacceptable for concerns of the organization’s welfare to dominate its objectives, what scholar and professor Michael N. Barnett refers to as the “bureaucratization of peacekeeping”(p. 134), yet this is exactly what occurred with the UN.

After the end of the Cold War, the overzealous approval of almost any operation left the UN stretched thin and thus ineffective, causing a shift towards intervention only when there was a good chance for success. The UN believed the international communities’ best interests were tied to the continuance of the UN itself, therefore, it was occasionally necessary to ignore an evil for the greater good (Barnett p. 141). Peace was paramount to the UN’s interests and justice was not (Bert p. 165). According to Barnett, UN officials upheld that peacekeeping is most effective when all parties’ consent and the UN can remain neutral (p.139), implying the UN would routinely avoid using force. Members justified their lack of action by asserting people must “take control of their lives” (Barnett p. 140).

It was true that the factions’ unwillingness to consider a political settlement would limit the success of even a large-scale military intervention due to the lack of a specific goal and thus elicited fear of an open ended commitment. The general opinion was that if a settlement could not be reached, peacekeeping or any intervention was hopeless (Burg, Shoup p. 203-210).

Yet for the Western powers to do nothing was to forfeit nations’ rights to territorial integrity and concede to the use of force as a viable approach to governance and gaining territory. Thatcher, who was no longer in office, referred to the Bosnian people as “victims of the failure of the democracies to act” and scolded Western actors for using humanitarian aid to “excuse their own inaction” (p. 136). After a failed attempt at negotiations with the Vance-Owen plan, the UN established “safe areas” under the protection of UNPROFOR in April and May 1993; first only in Srebrenica, then in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zepa, Gorazde, and Bihac as well.

Many people, including the Bosnian government, vehemently opposed the creation of these zones, calling it acceptance of ethnic cleansing (Burg, Shoup p. 264). While the concept of safe areas was well intentioned, the UN failed to provide UNPROFOR additional resources or authority needed to protect these areas and to clearly define the safe zones (Zacklin p. 54). The formation of these safe areas under the control of UNPROFOR delegated the duty of enforcement to peacekeeping troops, creating a paradox in which peacekeepers were assigned to use force, and thus war, to keep peace.

Not only were the UNPROFOR unequipped for this task, it also went against their very purpose (Zacklin p. 60). In March 1993, the Council passed Resolution 816, granting member states the right to take “all necessary measures in the airspace” to defend UNPROFOR troops in these areas. It was only after this Resolution that NATO could become involved, using airstrikes to keep aggressors at bay. Finally, with the burden of enforcement tasked to members of NATO, international engagement was enacted in the form of airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs and other aggressors.

Airstrikes against and by NATO continued periodically through 1994 and 1995 as UNPROFOR troops were recurrently taken hostage; yet no significant airstrike was authorized until over a month after the Srebrenica massacre (Bert p. xviii). The conflict came to an end in October 1995 with the declaration of a cease-fire between all parties, and the Dayton Accords were signed in December 1995. The lesson here is not that the United Nations is evil or has bad intentions, only that it is fundamentally inefficient.

The countless brutal human rights violations, caused by old nationalistic and cultural tensions, were allowed to continue due to the unwillingness of nations to take responsibility through force. Powerful member states that could have made a difference hid behind ambiguities in the charter, including the issue of whether the conflict was domestic in nature and the contradiction between territorial integrity and self-determination. The mistakes made during the Bosnia conflict were not the fault of UNPROFOR troops, who should never have been put in the position of complete authority and dependence.

The issue of inaction was rooted in the concern for nations’ interests and the UN’s reputation, which took precedence over justice and human rights. The lesson is that when we criticize the United Nations, we are criticizing ourselves (Rose p. 138). It is through our own negligence that these atrocities were allowed to continue. It is the duty of UN members to act collectively to develop new doctrines, policies, and procedures, while also creating new units to cope with new complications as they arise. Sources: 1. Barnett, M. N. (1996). Six: The Politics of Indifference. This time we

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The breakup of Yugoslavia and the war in Bosnia (pp. ixx-42). Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press. 9. Rose, G. M. (1998). The Bosnia Experience. In: R. Thakur, 1998. Past Imperfect, Future UNcertain: the United Nations at Fifty (pp. 135-146). Basingstoke: Macmillan Press. 10. Sadkovich, J. J. (1996). The Former Yugoslavia. In: T. Cushman, S. G. Mestrovic ed. 1996. This Time We Knew: Western Responses to Genocide in Bosnia (pp. 282-295). New York: New York University Press. 11. Thatcher, Margaret, 1993. “What the West Must Do in Bosnia,” Original source: Wall Street Journal, Sept. 2 1993. In: C. Rogel, 1998.

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