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Srebrenica.  Europe’s Modern Genocide

In 1993 the French General, Phillippee Morillon, entered the Bosnian town of Srebrenica and, overstepping his authority, declared that the town would never be abandoned.  The United Nations Security Council later passed Resolutions to mandate Srebrenica, and other towns, as ‘safe areas’.  Despite the deployment of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), in July 1995 the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (BSA) attacked Srebrenica committing genocide.  Judge Riad, of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, described the attack as ‘truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history’.1

This article explores underlying issues with the mission and looks at why the ‘safe areas’ failed.  In a short article it is not possible to cover everything and lots of details are not engaged with here.  The core argument made is that UNPROFOR’s mandate was confused and that the nations contributing lacked the political will to fight for the ethical position they adopted.

The Mission

The UNSC authorised the deployment of UNPROFOR from Croatia into Bosnia with Resolution (UNSCR) 776 on 14 September 1992.  This extension of the mandate reflected the ‘deteriorating situation’ and was an acknowledgement that the warring parties in Bosnia were ignoring the UNSC’s calls for peace.  Initially the primary purpose of UNPROFOR was to re-open Sarajevo Airport as this was deemed essential for the restoration of humanitarian aid.  During 1992, however, the BSA drove over 200,000 civilians into what became the ‘safe areas’ as part of a strategy implemented by General Ratko Mladić.  Mladić’s intent was to ethnically cleanse Bosnia forcing Bosnian Muslims out by force and killing if necessary.  But few understood the scope of the plan, or accepted the consequences of it, at the time.  The mandate of the mission would grow in response to ethnic cleansing throughout the country and was fed by an optimistic belief in peacekeeping operations.

Bosnia areas of control, September 1994

On 16 April 1993 the UNSC unanimously passed UNSCR 819 declaring Srebrenica a ‘safe area’.  On 6 May 1993 the UNSC passed UNSCR 823 extending the safe area concept to Sarajevo, Tuzla, Žepa, Goražde, and Bihać.  The UNPROFOR mandate was formally extended to these five areas with UNSCR 836 on 4 June 1993.  To fulfil the broader mission the UN had requested 37,000 troops.2  But the eventual mandate only authorised 7,600 meaning UNPROFOR was stretched and incapable of concentrating for effect in a way military commanders would deem important.   Nations supporting the UN were unable to match their rhetoric to the mission.  From that number, many were not capable of forming a competent part of the mission and only around 3,500 would ever deploy.3. The nearest comparable situation to this is the ‘safe havens’ of Iraq.  The ‘safe havens’ had been created to protect the Kurdish population from Saddam Hussein and potential genocide in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War.4   To some extent, both were established to prevent a mass exodus of refugees, Kurds into Turkey or Bosnians into Europe, and fears of setting a precedent for potential refugees from former Soviet satellite countries.5. Like Iraq, the ‘safe areas’ were designed to geographically contain the problem.

Despite being similar in some areas, there were significant differences between them.  Iraq was easy to patrol by air whilst Bosnia had more complex terrain.  Although Iraq was capable of launching attacks into the ‘safe havens’ the rigid enforcement of the no-fly zone showed strong international will deterring encroachment.  Unlike Iraq, Bosnia had ‘boots on the ground’ in the form of UNPROFOR.  This could be seen as a greater commitment to the mission, but in practical terms it was less considered strategically risky for nations to commit air power.  In 1994 there was an ‘unusually seductive’ appeal to using air power because it  appeared ‘to offer gratification without commitment’.6.  UNPROFOR showed that land deployments must be coupled with the will to use force and the limits of relying on it.

The Mandate

The most significant problem UNPROFOR faced was the mission mandate.  There was ambiguity between the strong wording of UNSCRs 819 and 824, which established the ‘safe areas’ and other Resolutions and the operational design.  Both 819 and 824 made reference to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allowed UNPROFOR to take ‘all necessary measures’, including violence, to enforce the mandate.  This is significant because resolutions made under Chapter VI do not allow for lethal force.  When considered in hand with UNSCR 770 (13 August 1992), which had deemed the humanitarian situation as ‘a threat to international peace and security’ the use of lethal force was justified.

Srebrenica in 1995. Credit link.

But the UNSC was reluctant to become a combatant in the conflict and would not commit to more assertive peacekeeping, later known as peace enforcement.  A UK Foreign and Commonwealth briefing note in 1992 explained that UNPROFOR was not to ‘blast its way through’ to objectives.  Rather UNPROFOR should rely on the traditional peacekeeping principles of consent and agreement.7  Instead of clearly mandating the use of force, UNSCR 824 recalled UNSCR 815 (30 March 1993), which had allowed the use of force only for the movement and security of UNPROFOR.  It ‘demanded’ but gave no extra provision to ‘ensure the threatened towns and their surrounding areas be treated as safe areas’.8

In June 1993 the UNSC confused the situation further with UNSCR 836.  The Resolution authorised ‘subject to close coordination with the Secretary-General and UNPROFOR, ‘all necessary measures’, through the use of air power, in and around the ‘safe areas’.  The Resolution avoided the phrases ‘defend’ or ‘protect’, and did not set down firm boundaries as to where exactly the areas were.  Air power was authorised but it wasn’t clear what for and under what conditions.  The mission was also not allocated air power, relying on NATO to provide it at the UN’s request.  To call on NATO airpower required joint approval from both the UN and NATO in a system called the ‘dual key’.  The UNSC was relying on its authority by calling for the ‘cessation of attacks’ because it was unable to agree how to defend the ‘safe areas’ beyond good will.  The Resolution was later described as ‘a masterpiece of diplomatic drafting but largely unimplementable as an operational directive’, an opinion shared by UNPROFOR commanders.9

The Failure

International opinion has viewed Srebrenica as a ‘refugee camp’ surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces ignoring the far more complex reality.10  Yet, the ‘safe areas’ were contested zones from their creation.  According to Bosnian Serb accounts one raid launched from Srebrenica in January 1993 killed as many as 2,500 Serbs, including a significant number of civilians.11  It seems likely that many claims are propaganda, but they were widely believed by the BSA.  The Bosnian Muslim Army also switched to an offensive strategy in March 1995 with an emphasis on using the areas for rearming and resupply as attempted breakouts from Sarajevo and action around Tuzla demonstrated.12  It is contentious to say, and in no way justifies the disproportionate attack and eventual genocide, but parts of  ‘safe areas’ used for military purposes could be seen as legitimate targets.  UNPROFOR were not capable and not empowered to effectively police the ‘safe areas’ and reduce their military utility.  However, by July 1995, many of the Bosnia Muslim fighters in Srebrenica, led by Nasser Orić, had left the town to conduct operations elsewhere.  This undermined any rationale for the BSA attack.  The attack into the ‘safe area’ was driven by genocidal intent as part of the broader BSA campaign to ethnically cleanse Bosnia.

A DUTCHBAT observation post. Credit link.

One of the primary factors in the fall of Srebrenica was the weakness of the Dutch Battalion (DUTCHBAT) deployed there.  DUTCHBAT had been reduced from 730 soldiers to 429.  Despite being a combat unit, DUTCHBAT were armed as peacekeepers meaning they were reliant on air support to conduct strikes when needed.   Other contingents of the UNPROFOR, such as the British, deployed with armoured fighting vehicles but DUTCHBAT lacked the range of combat options available to others.  Srebrenica was also isolated from the rest of UNPROFOR and DUTCHBAT were unable to call on support from the rest of the mission.  Both the British and French contingents had shown a willingness to fight and the mission could have assisted.  This was in stark contrast to the surrounding BSA Drina Corps who had veteran armour and artillery support with soldiers blooded in the conflict.  Their numbers were boosted by local paramilitaries, described as ‘young urban gangsters in expensive sunglasses’ from Serbia.13  These forces had demonstrated the will to achieve their objectives through years of fighting.

For the perspective of Lieutenant Colonel Tom Karremans, the Commanding Officer of DUTCHBAT, the key element for deterring attacks was NATO air power.  Over 1993 and 1994 NATO had launched air strikes in support of the UNPROFOR.  This required turning the ‘dual key’ with approval from both the UN and NATO. Karremans was cautious about calling for airstrikes fearing he would undermine the neutrality of his force.  He first discussed the possibility when BSA shells exploded on his observation posts signalling the start of the attack.  But Kerramans believed in the idea of consent and was unwilling to respond with air power immediately.  He could not reasonably have foreseen the scale of the coming attack initially assessing that it was disruptive activity.14  However, his later calls for air support, even after 30 of his soldiers had been captured, were refused showing the weakness of the dual key system.  As had been the case in Goražde, taking UN hostages severely weakened international resolve to launch aggressive action.  The mission prioritised the life of the force over civilians in the ‘safe area’.  The UN Commander, General Janvier, had also issued a clear instruction in May 1995 that ‘the execution of the mandate is secondary to the security of UN personnel’.15

Colonel Karremans in 1995

On 11 July 1995 airstrikes against the BSA forces attacking Srebrenica were approved.  At 0400 the ‘dual key’ turned with the promise of air support by 0650.  But because of bureaucratic and communication problems, including a failure to fill in the correct form, NATO aircraft that had been in the air since 0600 were ordered not to attack.  NATO was later unable to provide air support to DUTCHBAT because they needed to return to base to refuel.  Whereas the BSA assaults on Sarajevo allowed the dual key more time, because of resistance from the Bosnian Muslim Army, the assault on Srebrenica was swift and largely unopposed.  This failure of coordination between the UN and NATO allowed General Mladić the time to extend the BSA assault on Srebrenica.16  The UN report concluded that this refusal to honour air strike requests represented the ‘command-and-control problems from which UNPROFOR suffered throughout its history’.17  Yet, a more fundamental problem was one of understanding and intent.  General Janvier refused to apply air power because he initially did not believe the BSA planned to overrun Srebrenica18 in contrast to Karremans judgement that they would.19 UNPROFOR also lacked an effective intelligence mechanism to understand the situation.20  At other times the UN approved strikes but NATO would or could not honour them.

The only action that Karremans could have taken would have been a mobile defence which was unlikely to be successful in the face of such overwhelming odds.  To defend the ‘safe areas’ required a static defence of thousands of civilians.  Any defence DUTCHBAT mounted could possibly have forced NATO airpower into action faster.  But there was no guarantee given the political constraints and the ‘dual key’ system.

Geopolitically, aggressive use of airpower threatened to ignite a larger conflict between Serbia and NATO, splitting the UNPROFOR between its NATO and non-NATO nations such as Russia.  The BSA air defence in the region also suggests that risk aversion was a factor.21  NATO was already only flying high altitude missions given the effectiveness of independent air defence vehicles such as the SA-9.22  The BSA had also been able to shoot down a British Sea Harrier and a US F-16.  Mladić had moved additional air defence into the region to support the attack into Srebrenica challenging NATO’s risk calculus.  Arguably, the BSA has deterred NATO to a greater extent than the UNPROFOR protected the ‘safe areas’


If the peacekeepers could do no more then where does the responsibility for Srebrenica lie?  The BSA Commander, Ratko Mladić, and two of his subordinates were found guilty of aiding and abetting genocide and received a sentence of 35 years imprisonment.  The International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia concluded that the BSA ‘targeted for extinction the 40,000 Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica… and… deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity’.23  The culpability for the genocide must rest with the attackers who planned and resourced it.  Recent revisionist positions look to place responsibility on anyone but the murderers and this reflects the geopolitics of the region.  In 2015, for example, Russia used its veto at the UNSC to stop a Resolution calling the attack a genocide instead referring to it as a crime.  During the debate the Russian Ambassador described the Resolution as ‘not constructive, confrontational and politically motivated’.  Srebrenica was part of a broader campaign to systemically murder Bosnian Muslims and history should record it as such.

General Ratko Mladić during UN-mediated talks at Sarajevo airport in 1993. Courtesy of I, Evstafiev and used under CC 1.0

Following the incident, a Dutch court considered if it was possible for the relatives of those murdered at Srebrenica to bring a case against the UN and the Dutch Government.  The argument centred on claims that DUTCHBAT ‘had a humanitarian assignment, but they acted contrary to their instructions’,24 and did not fulfil their obligation under the Genocide Convention.25  The Dutch Supreme Court would eventually find the state 10% culpable.26  It seems likely that both future politicians and force commanders will face similar ethical and legal dilemmas.  More critically, it demonstrates that committing force requires both the will and means to use it.


UNPROFOR is rightly seen as a failed mission.  The force was unable to intervene to protect the ‘safe areas’ and few now defend the record of the mission.  For modern operational planners the UNPROFOR shows the danger of an unclear mandate.  In UNPROFOR the mandate outwardly specified the use of force to achieve objectives but this was not translated into the force design.  The mission lacked the political will to ever succeed.  On top of this, the means available to the force undermined any prospect of success.  A wider look at UNPROFOR finds some evidence for consent and agreement being effective but this was largely when one element lacked the resources to engage the UN.  By 1995, however, it was clear that the UNPROFOR did not have the fighting power to be credible.  Confusion over how and when air power could be used was the manifestation of this.  The joint control over aggressive options watered down the response to the lowest common agreement.  This shows the need for peace operations to be backed by both the will and the means to fight.  As the UK looks to increase its commitment to UN peace operations and re-engages with its international responsibilities these lessons are critical to remember.27


Cover photo: Michael Büker Gravestones at the Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica. Used under Creative Commons. 


Steve Maguire

Steve Maguire is a British Army Officer serving with The Royal Irish Regiment.  He has served at regimental duty, with an armoured infantry brigade, and with the Army Headquarters.  He is also the Wavell Room Senior Land Editor.


The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.


  1. ICTY, Bosnia and Herzegovina v Serbia and Montenegro, 2007, see also  ICTY, Press Release 16th November 1995
  2. UN DOC  S/25939, para  5 and see also ‘Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to General Assembly resolution 53/35’ para.77
  3. For example, the ‘precarious state’ of Bangladeshi troops and there were particularly problems with Russian contingents. See Jacob Kipp & Tarn Warren, The Russian Separate Airborne Brigade – Peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in John Mackinlay & Peter Cross, ed. Regional Peacekeepers, The Paradox of Russian Peacekeeping, (Tokyo: UNU Press, 2003) pp 34 – 62 & Michael Rose, Fighting for Peace, (Warner: London 1998) pp. 126.  For deployment figures see Report of the Secretary General pursuant to Security Council Resolution 959’ para. 54
  4. See Carol McQueen,Humanitarian Intervention and Safety Zones, Iraq, Bosnia and Rwanda, (Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2005) pp 26 – 29
  5. Britain in particular was concerned; See Thomas Mockaitis, Peace Operations and Intrastate Conflict: The Sword or the Olive Branch? (Greenwood, Westport, 1999) p.95
  6. Elliot Cohen, The Mystique of US Airpower, Foreign Affairs, 1994, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1994-01-01/mystique-us-air-power
  7. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, ‘UN Relief Operations in Bosnia-Hercegovina’ October 1992’
  8. See UNSCR 819 & quote taken from UNSCR 824
  9. Shashi Tharoor, Should UN Peacekeeping Go “Back to Basics? (Survival, Vol.37, No.4 (1995)  pp 52 – 64), p.60 see also Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force, p. 341
  10. Hikaru Yamashita,Humanitarian Space, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004), pp.100-1
  11. Philip Corwin, Dubious Mandate: A Memoir of the UN in Bosnia, (Duke University Press, 1999) p.189
  12. See Diane Johnson,‘Using War as an Excuse for More War: Srebrenica Revisited, Online, https://www.globalresearch.ca/using-war-as-an-excuse-for-more-war-srebrenica-revisited/1107, accessed 2 May 2021
  13. Noel Malcolm, Bosnia, (Papermac: Oxford, 1996) p.252 and see Adam LeBor, Milošević, (London: Bloomsbury, 2002) p.235
  14. Jan Willem Honig & Norbert Both,Srebrenica, (Penguin, London, 1996) p.13
  15. UNPROFOR Directive 2/95, 29th May 1995
  16. Adam LeBor, Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide, (R.R.Donnelley: Virginia, 2006)  p.103
  17. Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to General Assembly resolution 53/35: The Fall of Srebrenica, para.471
  18. David Rohde, Srebrenica: Europe’s Worst Massacre, (Pocket Books: London, 1997) p.125
  19. Jan Willem Honig & Norbert Both, Srebrenica, p.18
  20. Steve Maguire, UN Intelligence in Bosnia, Wavell Room, May 2021, http://wavellroom.com/2021/05/26/un-intelligence-in-bosnia-unprofor-balkans-peacekeeping/
  21. NATO lost numerous aircraft over the period 1992 – 1995. See Tim Ripley,Conflict In The Balkans 1991 – 2000, (Osprey Publishing Limited, Oxford, 2001) p. 83
  22. See Andrew Sweetman, ‘Close air support over Bosnia-Hercegovina’, (The RUSI Journal, Vol.139 , NO.4 ( Aug 1994) pp 34 – 36) p.35
  23. International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ”Prosecutor vs Krstic” Judgement, April 2004, https://www.icty.org/x/cases/krstic/acjug/en/krs-aj040419e.pdf#page=16,
  24. Liesbeth Zegveld quoted in BBC News ‘Dutch Court hears Srebrenica case’ 16th June 2008
  25. See Van Diepen van der Kroef advocaten ‘Introduction to the case, Srebrenica’.  This article has been removed from the internet since publishing.
  26. BBC, Srebrenica Massacre, 19 July 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-49042372
  27. HMG, Global Britain in an Competitive Age (the Integrated Review), March 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/975077/Global_Britain_in_a_Competitive_Age-_the_Integrated_Review_of_Security__Defence__Development_and_Foreign_Policy.pdf

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