Syria, Yet Another UN Failure Like in Srebrenica?

Human Wrongs Watch

By Vesna Peric Zimonjic*

Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina – Footage and photos of fighting raging in Syria for many months now keep flowing into media outlets all over the world, with political solutions being sought in vain and suffering of civilians being shown on screens or in papers each and every day.

**Burial of 775 identified victims in 2010. Credit: Juniki San | Wikimedia Commons.

The United Nations (UN) is declaring, almost every day, that it is putting its efforts to prevent human catastrophe in the town of Aleppo, where literally hundreds of thousands of people are trapped with almost no way out, while the Christian quarters of the capital of Damascus are also under fire by government forces for the first time.

Amnesty International launched an appeal to the UN Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court and impose an arms embargo as many atrocities were committed against civilians, peaceful protestors and innocent bystanders, including children.

The fate of Syrian civilians was an issue strongly pronounced by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week in Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, where the world organisation failed so much in its mission.

“We Must learn the Lessons of Srebrenica” 

The event of July 1995 raises many questions if any UN mission in the Middle Eastern nation, or elsewhere, could bring protection or help.

“There is perhaps nowhere in the world more difficult, more painful, than here for the UN Secretary-General to visit,” the first UN Secretary-General who ever visited the site said.

“We must learn the lessons of Srebrenica. The UN is doing, will continue to do all that we can to prevent this [so that] Srebrenica will not happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone…We must do whatever we can to protect civilians, to prevent and protect and to stop bloodshed, particularly in Syria now,” Ban said.

“The international community must be united not to see any further bloodshed in Syria because I do not want to see any of my successors, after 20 years, visiting Syria, apologising for what we could have done now to protect the civilians in Syria – which we are not doing now”, the UN Secretary-General added.

“Safe Zone”

Srebrenica was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces on July 11, 1995, despite being the UN-protected, or so-called “safe zone” in the bloody war in Bosnia Herzegovina that raged from 1992 until 1995, taking some 100,000 lives. Most of victims were Bosniak Muslims.

The safe zone was supposed to provide protection to Muslims, surrounded by territories under the control of Bosnian Serb army.

However, more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were separated from their families in the days following the fall of Srebrenica, under the very eyes and with the UN Dutch battalion turning the blind eye to the fate of these people.

Potocari – Ban Ki-moon and president of Bosnian Presidency Bakir Izetbegovic. Credit: Vesna Peric Zimonjic

Ban Ki-moon visited the regions of the Balkans last week. One stop on his tour was the Memorial Centre of Potocari, where victims of Srebrenica massacre of Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serbs are buried. It was the worst atrocity and war crime in Europe since the WW II. On one hand, Ban expressed his sympathy to survivors and families of victims, and warned that protection of civilians is a hard task for the UN in Syria today. Bosnian experience tells that this can hardly be done.


Later on, men and boys were systematically slaughtered by Bosnian Serbs, buried in shallow graves in the hills around Srebrenica, later even moved to secondary graves after the international community became aware of what happened in the days following July 11.

The Srebrenica massacre was described as genocide by the UN-founded International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in several sentences pronounced against Bosnian Serb war time generals. It was also defined as genocide by the International Court of Justice. Both are based in The Hague.

Remains of the victims of the worst atrocity in Europe since WW II are still being dug up and buried at the Memorial Centre of Potocari each year on July 11. The remains of some 5,800 victims have been identified and buried so far, with the use of most sophisticated DNA analyses.

It was the worst atrocity and war crime in Europe since the WW II

No Good Words for the UN

However, survivors of Srebrenica and families of victims have few good words for the UN and its missions.

“From the moment it happened (fall of Srebrenica) I don’t consider the UN to be a friendly organisation,” survivor Hasan Nuhanovic (44) told Human Wrongs Watch in Potocari.

“It was the UN that handed over my family to Serb soldiers…Those people were wearing blue helmets. The UN forced people out of their base, which was a precedent in the history of UN missions since 1948,” Nuhanovic said.

Nuhanovic was working as the interpreter for the Dutch battalion and its commander Col Thom Karremans.

He survived only because he was allowed by the Dutch to remain in the compound of former battery factory in Potocari.

Handed Over to Bosnian Serbs

All the Srebrenica people who sought refuge in the compound where the UN was stationed were handed over to Bosnian Serbs, Nuhanovic’s family as well. Their remains were found only two years ago, identified and buried at the Memorial Centre in 2010.

“This visit (by Ban Ki-moon) is important, of course, but there is no practical use of him saying he’s sorry…What are the concrete issues the UN can do to rectify its mistakes from the past? I don’t know. The UN flag stood on the mast for days on, as if the mission was still going on, while people were killed en masse. That was a horrible irony” Nuhanovic added.

Last year he succeeded in finding at least some justice before an appeals court in The Netherlands that placed the blame for the death of his family directly on the Dutch government’s shoulders, due to the shameful role of Dutch battalion.

Nuhanovic’s civil suit and battle lasted nine years. In 2008, a lower Dutch court said that the nation had nothing to do with the deeds of its battalion.

But for Hajra Catic, whose son Nino, a journalist who is still missing, the role of the UN is the one “that still hurts”.

What to Expect!

“About the Secretary-General and his visit – what to say, I expect nothing from him, he can’t do a thing”, Catic told Human Wrongs Watch.

“The UN did nothing when they were needed here. We tried suing the UN before international courts, but there is immunity for top individuals from missions, and that is what they are hiding behind. Besides, although the UN founded the ICTY as well (in 1993), it is now destroying personal belongings of victims of Srebrenica”.

She was referring to reports that the ICTY has begun destroying evidence in form of personal belongings collected from mass graves around Srebrenica. The process has begun in 2006.

“That is so unfair,” Catic said. “At least, those were maybe the only memories for families – shirts, shoes watches, IDs, personal things, and they’re gone. Another blame on the UN,” Catic added.

“We Take Actions, But…”

And when the UN Secretary General closed his short visit to Potocari with an appeal to the international community to hear the words the UN is addressing, by saying “we have taken actions, but these actions and recommendations have not been heard and implemented by, first of all, the Syrian authorities and I urge again the opposition forces [to] fully cooperate with the UN”, most of the survivors and victims families members simply waived their hands in disbelief that much can be done. (ends).

*Vesna Peric Zimonjic is a long-time freelancer working for international media from the region of the Balkans. Coverage included all major events in the war time, critical years for the region, the 90s, and post-conflict developments in what used to be Yugoslavia. Apart from print media such as The Independent, Wall Street Journal, or agencies such as Inter Press Service, contributions on critical events were regularly provided to the Australian radio and TV stations, the BBC, Radio-TV Deutche Welle, Irish radios and TVs and many others. Lives and works in Belgrade.

**Image: Burial of 775 identified victims in 2010. Credit: Juniki San | Wikimedia Commons

Copyright © 2012 Human Wrongs Watch

This article can be republished, sourcing and linking to: Human Wrongs Watch

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