PARIS -- Institutions are not ordinarily given to examinations of conscience. Nor do they often make apologies to those they have failed. Thus, release by the United Nations of results of an internal investigation of its July 1995 conduct at Srebrenica, in Bosnia, was remarkable.
It was the more so because Kofi Annan, the current U.N. secretary general, was head of the Bosnian peacekeeping operation at the time of the Bosnian war, and in the direct chain of command that so tragically failed Srebrenica.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali was then-U.N. secretary general; the peacekeepers ultimately acted under Security Council direction. But the U.N. peacekeeping staff provided the security council and secretariat with information and advice on which those bodies acted. The release of this report is an evidence of Mr. Annan's personal courage.
The report acknowledges that the United Nations bears a heavy responsibility for the worst mass murder of civilians in Europe since the end of the World War II. Some 10,000 Muslims were murdered or remain missing as a consequence of the fall of Srebrenica, which the United Nations had guaranteed a safe area.
The report admits that the U.N. command and peacekeeping force refused to admit the threat to the Muslims; appeased Bosnian Serb leadership by refusing to allow air support for the outnumbered Dutch peacekeeping battalion supposedly protecting Srebrenica's people; and refused to release sequestered weapons for the Bosnians to use to defend themselves. The Dutch battalion made no effort to protect the townspeople. The United States would not give satellite intelligence to the United Nations.
Annan on the record
Mr. Annan is quoted in the report, saying the United Nations "gave the Security Council the impression that the situation was under control. . . . The day before Srebrenica fell, we reported that the Serbs were not attacking, when they were. We reported that the Bosnians had fired on UNPROFOR blocking positions, when it was the Serbs. We failed to mention urgent requests for air power."
The report concludes that "through error, misjudgment and an inability to recognize the scope of evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder."
It is a handsome apology, if useless to the murdered. It must surely provoke changed attitudes and bureaucratic practices in the United Nation's peacekeeping apparatus. It's worth adding that it also vindicates what the press and engaged observers of the Bosnian situation were desperately saying at the time.
The report admits that the principle of impartial intervention was false. There was an aggressor side, and there was a victim side. The United Nations refused to admit that this was so -- but so did the European governments.
They did so because choosing sides would have provoked domestic political trouble. It would also have transformed what was held to be an affair in which an essentially technical, "neutral" response was appropriate into one in which political and moral judgments had to be made and acted upon.
The report concludes that this was wrong. "In Bosnia and in Kosovo, the international community tried to reach a negotiated solution with an unscrupulous and murderous regime. In both instances, it required the use of force to bring a halt to the planned and systematic killing and expulsion of civilians."
This is true. But could the United Nations have used force in Bosnia in 1992, when independence was declared and the war began? I think not. The initial political situation was not one of clear-cut rights and wrongs.
International opinion turned against the Serbs chiefly because of the unrestrained brutality they displayed in seizing as much of Bosnia as possible, and expelling Muslim civilians. Their pitiless siege of Sarajevo and deliberate destruction of its institutions of Muslim culture and religion mobilized international support for the Bosnians.
Even then, it was extremely difficult to find Security Council support for U.N. military intervention. It was only after Srebrenica, and after the Serbs arrogantly took U.N. troops hostage, that the Europeans became willing to act. The French government ordered its troops to strike back at the Serbs. The British, Dutch and French reinforced UNPROFOR with artillery and heavy mortars. They finally accepted U.S. arguments for air intervention. But that was at the end of the ordeal. Each of these was a national decision. Again in Kosovo, it was necessary for national governments, acting through NATO, to decide to intervene. The Security Council was not brought in because military intervention would have been vetoed.
Agents of moral conscience
Mr. Annan said in September, when the General Assembly met, that "unless the Security Council is restored to its preeminent position as the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force, we are on a dangerous path to anarchy." He is mistaken. That was the path we were on when the United Nations failed Srebrenica. Nations have moral existence. The "international community" does not. Nations remain the ultimate agents of moral conscience.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.