Srebrenica Could Have Been Prevented

by Robert E. Hunter

This Saturday, we remember the slaughter at the Bosnian Moslem enclave at Srebrenica, 20 years ago. Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladi? systematically murdered at least 8,000—probably more—men and boys. Mladi? acted undoubtedly at the behest of the president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic.

This week, the United Nations Security Council considered a resolution, sponsored by the United Kingdom, to condemn what happened at Srebrenica as genocide. To borrow from Lincoln at Gettysburg, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.” Nevertheless, Russia vetoed the UN Resolution, and so it was not adopted.

British Deputy Ambassador Peter Wilson accused Russia of siding “with those who are unwilling to accept the facts today.” The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, who had been a reporter in Bosnia at the time of the massacre, said after the Russian veto this week that “Russia’s veto is heartbreaking for those families and it is a further stain on this Council’s record.”

Before the vote, the Deputy UN Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said, “We gather in humility and regret to recognize the failure of the United Nations and the international community to prevent this tragedy.” So true. But it didn’t have to be if everyone had done their jobs at the time.

I can only testify to part of what happened back then. But I can speak to what I did know, as the US ambassador to NATO. These are bitter memories.

Prodding NATO into Action

For two years, the United States had sought to gain agreement at NATO to use airpower to try protecting civilians in Bosnia, especially refugees, from the war. It did so pursuant to UN Security Council Resolutions. The North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing body, which operates on the unanimity principle, took a series of decisions about airpower. For instance, it prevented the flight of any fixed-wing aircraft over Bosnia, which meant more than 100,000 NATO air sorties to make it effective. NATO also agreed to provide “close air support” to UN forces on the ground with the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) if they were under attack. And it agreed nine times, according to different formulas, to use air power if any of a set of UN-designated “safe areas,” including havens for refugees, came under attack from any quarter. I negotiated eight of those decisions on behalf of the United States.

It was never easy to get unanimity, even with US leadership. Greece sympathized with Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs, given shared ties through the Orthodox Church, but Athens never blocked a NATO airpower decision. Other allies—11 in all—were concerned that their own forces in Bosnia, serving as part of UNPROFOR, could be put at risk of retaliation if NATO began bombing. Indeed, for a period of time in May 1995, Bosnian Serb forces took hostage more than 300 of these peacekeepers. Canada was one of the countries most concerned on this score, especially with its sizeable contribution of forces to UNPROFOR, its largest overseas deployment. But in the end, Canada did not block NATO airstrike decisions.

The two countries most reluctant for NATO to use its airpower to protect the safe areas or, after an attack on any one of them, to strike heavy weapons that had been used in the attack, were France and Britain, for reasons that they never fully explained. Nevertheless, I found that in each of the NATO deliberations leading up to the last one taken before Srebrenica, France could eventually be brought around. (Further, once it had agreed that NATO should act, France was steadfast in implementing, to the letter, NATO decisions, which was not always true of Britain.) Being thus isolated on the North Atlantic Council, Britain would reluctantly agree, although after doing its best to water down the NATO decisions.

But the debate didn’t stop there. By agreement with the UN, master of UNPROFOR, both NATO and the UN secretary-general (or a designated representative according to the secretary-general’s instructions) had to agree to any actual use of airpower to protect the safe areas. In this “two-key” arrangement, both NATO and the UN had to assent to authorize NATO to employ air strikes. (The agreements on preventing flights over Bosnia, Operation Deny Flight, and on responding to requests by beleaguered UN forces on the ground to receive close air support by NATO airplanes overhead, did not need any further authorization.)

But even when NATO agreed on the use of airpower and the conditions that would apply, it proved most difficult to get the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to “turn his key.” He was not a (political) fool. He knew that two of the five permanent UNSC members (Russia and China) opposed the use of NATO airpower because of the potential extension of NATO’s writ in Europe (Russia) or the precedent that could be set for external intervention in internal conflicts (China). But neither blocked the “turning of the key.”

Boutros-Ghali knew, however, that France and, to a greater degree, Britain, opposed implementing the NATO decisions—and they were two of the three Western members of the UNSC. Indeed, at one point in 1994, he told the-then NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner (who told it to me) that “some of your allies speak with forked tongue.” (Boutros-Ghali was obviously acquainted with American movie Westerns.) Wörner, who died before the war was stopped, was the European leader most consistently supportive of—indeed agitating for—the use of NATO airpower, in terms both of ending the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II and restoring NATO and Western credibility.

As a result, even when Bosnian Serbs engaged in egregious violations of the safe areas with heavy weapons, the most we could get the UN to do in “turning its key” was to engage in what came to be called “pin-prick” use of NATO airpower. That was almost worse than nothing, given that it conveyed impotence, not resolve. Regrettably, US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright failed to gain any traction with the British and French ambassadors to the Security Council, where it mattered and she had a chance to act, despite her strong statements from time to time about the importance of the use of force.

Dissension within the Ranks

At the same time, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), US General George Joulwan, made no secret of his reluctance to put NATO air forces at any risk from the application of airpower to protect the safe areas. More than once I faced the problem in the North Atlantic Council of pressing US support for NATO’s employing air power, while the NATO military commander, a senior US officer who also commanded all US forces in Europe, was wondering out loud whether the allies really meant what they were deciding. “Who is really representing the United States?” some allies asked themselves: “the representative of the US president or the American general who is SACEUR?” The issue came conspicuously to a head on one occasion when NATO engaged in a “pin-prick” attack. The following day, SACEUR sent an air armada of 37 planes to take a few pictures of the damage done. This number was so excessive that the UN got the mission called off before it reached its destination.

Another unlikely actor consistently opposed the use of NATO power: the lead negotiator for peace in Bosnia, US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Throughout, he did whatever he could to keep NATO from employing air power. One can only conjecture as to his motives, but one was obviously that “success” had to come through his diplomacy, not with any application of force in support of that diplomacy. At one point, following a limited NATO airstrike, he phoned the deputy chairman of the NATO Military Committee (a US vice admiral) and excoriated him for interfering with his diplomacy.

The worst example came after Srebrenica (in July) and a Bosnian Serb mortar attack on a market in Sarajevo (the end of August). Britain and France had finally withdrawn their objections, and the UN Secretary General had thus become willing to “turn his key,” At long last, NATO was able to begin a major air campaign.

Yet within 24 hours, Holbrooke demanded a “pause” in the bombing so he could go to Belgrade and get Milosevic to agree to his peace plan. I objected, as did NATO Secretary General Willy Claes when I relayed the demand to him. After two years of effort, we were finally able to get NATO to do what it should have been doing all along. And this chance of stopping the war at long last was being put at risk. But Washington overruled us on the grounds that “Holbrooke is the negotiator and we have to do what he wants.” (My instructions, which I insisted on getting in writing as is an ambassador’s privilege, included a request to Claes to introduce the bombing pause as his idea, in order to keep the US “fingerprints” off it. Claes obliged.)

Obviously, the Holbrooke mission to Belgrade was “bricks without straw.” Having been relieved of military pressure, Milosevic promptly and naturally dismissed the peace proposal. My task was then to get the bombing campaign restarted, which required a session of the North Atlantic Council far into the night. I introduced (through Claes) the notion that the Council was merely continuing a decision it had already taken, not starting fresh. Having once taken the most difficult decision, the allies bought this line of reasoning. NATO bombing recommenced, and in 18 more days the Bosnia War was over.

Fortunately, other American officials understood that Milosevic would not change his course without the use of military force. The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili, the most recent previous SACEUR, was steadfast in his support of the president’s policy on NATO airstrikes. The same was true of Secretary of Defense William Perry. For example, he and I agreed at a NATO defense ministers meeting in Seville in spring 1995 that “pin-prick” NATO operations could no longer be acceptable because NATO and the US would look feckless if the Alliance permitted violations of the safe areas to go unchallenged. The most important “white knight” at senior levels in Washington in support of the use of military force to support diplomacy was Anthony Lake, President Clinton’s national security advisor, who consistently pressed for action.

Could the Massacre Have Been Prevented?

I believe the answer is clearly “Yes.” This does not mean that the Bosnian Serbs (and the president of Serbia) would have made life any easier for either the Bosnian Moslems or the Bosnian Croats. But a proper and sustained use of NATO airpower, in response to direct provocations, would have gotten across the message much sooner than in fact happened, thus saving many lives. All that was required was Milosevic’s understanding that the West truly meant business.

Which brings us back to what happened at the UN this week. Should we call the massacre at Srebrenica by its proper name, genocide? Absolutely. But it was a bit much for the British, who did the most to prevent the use of NATO air power in defense of safe areas before the Srebrenica massacre, to be in the lead in pressing for the resolution. It was also inexcusable that the British and American representatives to the UN did not “count the votes” before letting the resolution be brought to a vote. The Russian ambassador to the UN was quite clear beforehand that he would cast a veto, for whatever reasons. The Russians had always believed that NATO’s actions in Bosnia were one-sided. Moscow obviously saw this week as an opportunity to separate Serbia—which openly opposed the resolution—and perhaps also Greece from other members of the alliance, as part of its tactics of trying to divide the West over sanctions imposed on Russia because of its aggression in Ukraine.

We do need ways to remember the victims of Srebrenica. Putting forward a draft UN resolution guaranteed to fail was not the way.

I thus experienced this week a combination of reawakened anger and bitterness over the actions of people and nations who should have known and acted better to prevent “Srebrenica” when it could have been prevented and over the grandstanding of the US and British UN ambassadors after Russia’s veto of the UN Resolution. An action designed to “bring closure” to the grieving families of the Srebrenica victims instead just opened fresh wounds.

Photo: Burial in 2007 of 465 Bosniaks killed in the Srebrenica massacre

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. There is no such thing as a “humanitarian war.” Although claimed as fact, the author offers nothing but speculation about how things might have been had only x and y occurred. But if x and y had occurred, there is no way of knowing how events would have played out, particularly on the issue of how many lives would have been lost.

  2. “THE MOSLEMS LIFE DO NOT MATTER”! This seems to be the mantra for the past couple of decades. Beat them on the head, bomb them, kill them and their future generations, steal their resources and in return sell them junky arms to further kill each other!

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