An account of the Yugoslav War written by by Jan Marijnissen and Karel Glastra van Loon
Jan Marijnissen is leader of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands (SP)
Karel Glastra van Loon was a novelist and journalist, closely associated with the SP, who has died, at the age of only 43, since this book was published in the original Dutch. His best known work in English was The Passion Fruit
The Last War of the 20th Century - Chapter 11
April 30, 2008 18:31 | by Jan Marijnissen and Karel Glastra van Loon
Exercise in discretion
Too many moralists begin with a dislike of reality, a dislike of men as they are.
On 25th April 1999, fifty years after NATO was established to provide a shield against the Red Menace, its member states gathered in Washington DC to add their signatures to a new strategic concept for the alliance. Rob de Wijk has in the past had direct experience of NATO's decision-making and policy formation, so we asked him precisely when the Dutch government had had the opportunity to participate in the drawing up of this important document.
De Wijk: 'You shouldn't expect too much there. I myself worked on the 1990 draft and the preparations for the 1999 draft, but that was completed in its entirety by senior officials. The minister was only informed at a very late stage. There was, it's true, some political direction, but this came primarily indirectly from the NATO ambassadors under instruction from their capitals. The eventual text is a compromise document 80 to 90 percent of which was fully negotiated by civil servants. After that, during that kind of summit there remains a bit of tinkering to be done by the government leaders who will adjust a clause here and there. But grosso modo it's the work of civil servants, formally laying down what in practice has already been happening for a long time. Because with NATO, theory always trails behind practice.'
What exactly is new about NATO's new strategic plan? One of the most important changes in comparison to the past is undoubtedly the fact that the alliance will henceforth reserve the right to intervene wherever a perceived threat exists, or where the security of the Euro-Atlantic region is seen to be affected.
Furthermore, to the list of NATO's core tasks has been added, in part due to the efforts of the Dutch ambassador, the performance of 'crisis management operations' - both peace keeping and peace enforcing operations. In the new strategic plan it is further stated that intervention outside of NATO member states' territory should 'preferably' happen with a mandate from the Security Council. When on 21st April 1999 the Dutch parliament had an exchange of views over the plan, which was then being elaborated by NATO, SP Member of Parliament Harry van Bommel presented a motion demanding that the government make efforts to have the words 'for preference' replaced by 'by definition'. But this motion won no support outside of our own at the time five-strong group of MPs. It was the last time that Parliament's lower house would concern itself with the matter, as the government is under no obligation to bring a NATO plan of this kind before Parliament for ratification.
With the adoption of the new strategic plan, NATO ceased definitively to be a defence organisation and became instead a military power-bloc permitting itself to act outside the territory of its member states in pursuit of its own economic or political interests. Or as the supporters of this new strategy would rather it were put, in pursuit of the enforcement of human rights, of the international world order, of peace. There is therefore a sizeable chance that in the framework of 'crisis management operations there will follow many more Kosovos.
In the letter to Parliament in which a report is given of the NATO summit in Washington, the Minister of Foreign Affairs puts it like this:
'The political, military and humanitarian approach to the Kosovo crisis were strongly supported, in the realization that these constituted the clearest manifestation of the policy that NATO has set out in the Strategic Concept for the coming period.'
It is, to put it mildly, remarkable that NATO has elevated its approach to the Kosovo crisis into its strategic concept for the future, given the approach's lack of effectiveness of this approach when measured against its self-formulated goals, a matter we looked at in the previous chapter. And the negative experience in Kosovo did not come out of nowhere. It seems as far as this goes that the international community systematically overestimates, in any case, the possibility of successful 'humanitarian' intervention. Rob de Wijk and others have elsewhere in this book already spoken many heartfelt words over this. Neither the United Nations nor any country or alliance can point to a single genuinely successful operation in the framework of humanitarian interventions. At best it appears possible to arrive at a freezing of the status quo, as with the UN in Cyprus (UNFICYP, present there since 1964), on the Golan Heights (UNDOF, present since 1974), in South Lebanon (UNIFIL, present since 1978) and in Bosnia (UNMIBH, present since 1995). In itself there is nothing wrong with this, except in cases where this freeze stands in the way of a definitive solution, which is the case in almost all of the above-cited instances.
This really becomes serious, however, when unchallengeable opinion - and this seems increasingly to be the case - asserts that countries, in alliance or singly, are capable through means of massive violence of imposing peace on conflicting parties anywhere they care to. This is a dangerous kind of self-overestimation. It may therefore be that because NATO can drop bombs for weeks and weeks without having to incurring a single casualty, the temptation to think that it is in principle possible to impose one's will on whomever in the world, wherever in the world they may be. But the current situation in both Kosovo and Bosnia demonstrates that this is nevertheless, however, a misjudgement.
Military intervention is generally preceded by a diplomatic process, one based on the political analysis of the parties involved. Who all of these parties may be, each country or alliance of countries decides for itself on the basis of economic, political and ideological forces and interests. Interference in a conflict is therefore far from being inspired in all cases by the need to strive for peace and humanity - in fact it is for the most part not inspired by such considerations. The example of Western intervention in the crisis in the Balkans shows that it is easy to achieve the opposite of what was originally intended. An absence of any outside interference would very probably have been better than the halting interference from the EU, the UN and NATO which actually took place.
As we have seen, things were already going wrong when Germany, against the will of most other European countries, forced through the premature recognition of Slovenia and Croatia. Instead of tempering growing nationalism and separatism, it was decided to honour them. An all-embracing solution for the Balkans was no longer sought, but instead, at each new development, it was decided to try something new. If, in the knowledge that there were large ethnic minorities living in every republic, the argument had been presented for a confederal Yugoslavia in which there would be maximum freedom for the separate republics but also guarantees for the security of these minorities, then the volcano of ethnic discord might never have erupted. And in addition, if this confederation had turned out to be unachievable, and had Lord Carrington's proposed Yugoslavia 'à la carte' been attempted, the way in which things have run so horribly out of control, as has now occurred, could have been prevented. Because how things further developed in the Balkans is well-known. Europe, the United Nations and eventually also NATO became increasingly involved in the conflict and, in addition, with increasing frequency themselves parties to the whole thing. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Hans van Mierlo did once speak about the danger of what he called 'hospitalisering'. Not really a Dutch word at all, and a rather annoying one in this context, its meaning was nevertheless clear: by becoming ever more emphatically mixed up in the conflict, the EU and the UN were also with increasing frequency being held responsible for the failure of peace to materialise - including - or only - by the parties to the conflict who themselves continue unperturbed to secure their interests by violent means. Sir Michael Rose could, as we have read, confirm this.
Croats, Muslims, Slovenians, Macedonians, Montenegrans, Serbs, but also Turks, Jews and Roma have for centuries lived side by side in the Balkans. And notwithstanding a few conflicts, they have almost always done so in peace. The destruction of the old bridge in Mostar was for this reason extremely symbolic: during many centuries no-one had apparently felt the need to break the link between the different population groups in a violent manner. A very large part of the Yugoslav population consists, moreover, of people born from mixed marriages. The evil done in the Balkans was not shaped by the Serbs or the Muslims or by whatever population group, the evil in the Balkans was the evil of nationalism and of ethnically-based feelings of superiority consciously whipped up by irresponsible characters using the crudest of means. As these flames are fanned, escalation follows upon escalation, and will do so until a sound understanding is restored and prevails, and the idea that we all need each other wins out over mutual hatred. The possibility that the international community can force a solution in the midst of this process by means of violence and impose a pacification from without, as the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo proved, is non-existent. What happened instead was that the problems were exacerbated and prolonged.
Let us once again reconstruct the course of events in Bosnia. this time concentrating on interference by foreign powers.
On 14th October 1991, two weeks after the Bosnian parliament, in the absence of its Serbian members, declared itself in favour of independence (thereby following the examples of Croatia and Slovenia), the Carrington Plan came into being. Drawn up by British mediator Lord Carrington, whom we interviewed at some length in Chapter 4, the plan foresaw a division of Bosnia into three cantons, joined confederatively. It was endorsed by Croats, Serbs and Muslims. It was a moment in which a war in Bosnia appeared to have been prevented. But shortly afterwards the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, at the urging of the United States and European countries, reversed his standpoint. On further consideration he found (or rather the US and EU found) that a multi-ethnic Bosnia must be created. Instead, what they got was a war.
In August 1992 a renewed attempt was made to resolve the conflict through diplomatic means. The Vance-Owen plan foresaw a division of Bosnia into ten provinces: three for the Serbs, three for the Croats and three for the Muslims, with a multi-ethnic Sarajevo. Negotiations over this plan lasted until February 1993. On the 24th of that month Madeleine Albright, at the time the American representative at the UN, announced at a press conference that the United States saw no point in the proposal. 'This plan,' Albright said, 'comes down to the rewarding of aggression and the punishment of the victims.' And so the US voted in the Security Council against a French proposal to approve the Vance-Owen plan. The United States had 'other measures' in mind: the 'lift-and-strike' strategy, consisting of the lifting of the arms embargo for the Bosnian Muslims coupled with air strikes on the Bosnian Serbs. That this did not come about was because this strategy came up against insurmountable objections from the British who had, in contrast to the Americans, people in the field who could have become the direct victims of any full-blown war. In order nevertheless to do something for the ever growing numbers of civilians who were being driven from their homes, so-called safe havens were established in various places, about which we will soon have more to say. But peace, thanks to the American opposition to the Vance-Owen plan, did not return.
Next came the Owen-Stoltenberg plan. This plan looked very like the earlier Carrington plan rejected by the Muslims. It won the support of the Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Serbs, but was rejected by the Bosnian Parliament in September 1993. The war intensified once more. Then, in March 1994, under American pressure, a federation of Bosnian Croats and Muslims was established, as a result of which the war became, formally, a conflict between two parties instead of three.
In that same year, 1994, the so-called Contact Group was established - consisting of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and the United States - in the hope that it might help bring an end to the contradictions in the approach of foreign powers to intervention in the conflict. The first proposal that the Contact group made was to divide Bosnia into two parts: one part, 51 percent of the surface area, would go to the federation of Muslims and Croats, while 49 percent went to the Bosnian Serbs. Because the Serbs, from the beginning of the war, had the military ascendancy, they held at the time this proposal was made, however, 70 percent of the land. They therefore refused to sign the deal, and once again the war dragged on - but behind the scenes a dramatic change was taking place.
In May of 1995 the Croats began - they had, as later emerged, been trained and armed by the Americans - a major offensive against the Bosnian Serbs in Western Slavonia, following it up in August with a still greater offensive in Krajina, by means of which 200,000 Serbs were driven out of the Croatian territory. Suddenly, the Serbs found themselves on the losing side. Almost four years after the beginning of the war, the situation was ripe for a solution which in 1991 had lain within hand's reach, but which, through the lack of understanding and the shortsightedness of the foreign powers (for which read the EU and the United States), was never realised. When Richard Holbrooke began his shuttle diplomacy in the autumn of 1995, this led at last, in October, to a cease-fire and to the Dayton talks in Ohio which started on 1st November. The Dayton accord that these talks produced divided Bosnia into two almost equal parts: the Republica Srpska and the Bosnian Federation, and differed only in details from what Lord Carrington had proposed four years earlier.
While this political-diplomatic process - greatly hindered by the many countries and organisations which found it necessary, as a result of their own interests and opinions, to interfere - unfolded, on the ground UNPROFOR, the UN peacekeeping, was active. With a mandate which was unclear, these soldiers (the so-called Blue Helmets), who came from many different countries, tried as far as possible to be of service to the population in general. As former UNPROFOR commander Sir Michael Rose made palpable earlier in this book, their work was rewarding in the sense that in the situation as they found it they were able to offer people help, but extremely unsatisfactory in the sense that they could not bring peace to the warring parties as long as these parties themselves did not want peace.
Of course, in this context, the 'Srebrenica' debacle must be mentioned. It would go beyond the scope of this book to go into this in any great depth, but because it concerns a national trauma, and because it demonstrates in a nutshell the limits of 'humanitarian intervention', we would like nevertheless to take a look at this most painful of Dutch peacekeeping operations.
On 4th February 2000 NRC Handelsblad carried the following announcement:
Survivors of Srebrenica are demanding that a number of (former) UN officials, as well as Dutch citizens Joris Voorhoeve (Minister of Defence at the time of the fall of Srebrenica) and Ton Karremans (commander of the Dutch UN troops in the enclave), be charged with genocide. A delegation of the survivors stated this this morning during an interview with Yugoslav Tribunal chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte.
With this began a new chapter of a book that, despite the Dutch government's best efforts, will simply not be closed.
On the morning of 11th July 1995 Bosnian Serb troops, under the leadership of General Mladic, attacked the village of Srebrenica, a so-called 'safe haven' established by the Security Council (on the basis of Resolution 819) for the benefit of fleeing Muslims. Dutch UN soldiers, operating under the name 'Dutchbat', had the responsibility for the safety of the people in the enclave, but in the face of the superior strength of General Mladic's Serb forces, they were powerless. The promised UN air support failed to materialise, and the inevitable happened: the enclave fell. Thousands of Muslim men of fighting age were separated from the rest of their family and led away. Almost without exception they were put to death, just as were many of the men who in the night before the fall of the enclave had slipped away but who later fell into Serb hands. At the moment when it was really needed, the UN could not offer what it had promised: a safe haven for the Muslims.
An important question which has still not been adequately answered is this: who knew that Srebrenica would be given up at the moment that the Bosnian Serbs were making preparations to catch the enclave napping? The UN does admit in its evaluation report, which appeared in 1999, to have frankly 'failed', but clarification on this matter is missing. Ignore the fact that those responsible were forced to abandon their responsibility. In our country it is, even five years after the event, not politically possible to question those responsible in a parliamentary inquest under oath.
During a meeting of Parliament's lower house a few months after the fall of Srebrenica, Defence Minister Joris Voorhoeve announced that it had never been his intention truly to defend the enclave and that 'safe' - the English word always used to describe these 'havens' did not literally mean 'veilig' - the Dutch word which is, indeed, generally translated as 'safe' or 'secure'. He had already understood this when he was in Srebrenica just after he became minister. But did the members of Dutchbat and the Muslims driven into Srebrenica also know that? Apparently not. And if the minister indeed knew this, should he not have suggested to the Bosnian authorities that the enclave be cleared and the people there evacuated so that human lives could have been saved in advance? 'That's what we did,', was Voorhoeven's reaction when this question was put to him in Parliament. 'But they didn't want to do it.' If that is true - and it does accord with what Sir Michael Rose said about these events in Chapter 6 - then this would lay an enormous responsibility on the shoulders of the Bosnian leaders at the time - though the question also remains as to the extent to which the Dutch Minister of Defence shares their guilt. Had he publicly sounded the alarm, the pressure on the Bosnian authorities could undoubtedly have been heightened.
Another question which must be put is this: how could it come to pass that the Netherlands ever allowed itself to be tempted to venture into this wasp's nest? To answer this we must go back to the days when Relus ter Beek was Minister of Defence. This was the time when our country was building up its Light-Mobile Brigade. And the time when almost daily pictures came to us of Muslims in flight from the Bosnian Serbs. And precisely at that moment the Canadian battalion that had Srebrenica under its protection wanted to return home. The Netherlands was the only country prepared to deliver troops to Srebrenica. Not one major country with influence within NATO and/or the UN believed that the enclave could be defended. But the moral outrage in our country over everything that was happening in Bosnia was so great that politicians and the media had lost sight of reality. Negative signals from NATO allies were not picked up, although we - if problems should arise - would certainly be dependent on these countries. Nobody knew then that the 'safe haven' concept was only dreamed up to conceal the fact that the Americans wanted out of the Vance-Owen plan.
On 7th September 1993, at the urging of Parliament's lower house, and under the leadership of the now late Labour Member Maarten van Traa and the Christian Democrat Thijs van Vlijmen, Ter Beek, against his better judegement, put Dutch troops at the disposal of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, at the time Secretary-General of the UN, for the purpose of defending Srebrenica. Lieutenant General H.A. Couzy, commander of land forces, put his thoughts about this decision into words in his memoirs as follows:
'In this way it was from the very start an impossible task: too few soldiers, who had once again their hands tied behind their backs. The Bosnian Serbs who had completely surrounded Srebrenica, had therefore a free run.... As for the other assignment, the disarming of the Muslim fighters, from the start nothing much could be expected of this.'
In his book Couzy describes the operation as a 'mission impossible' and expresses his astonishment over officers on his own staff who supported the participation 'because it's good for the image of the Koninklijke Landmacht', the Royal Dutch Army. Couzy himself, however, took no further action consequent upon this standpoint.
Our country, as soon became clear in practice, had saddled itself with an impossible task. Muslim fighters emerged nightly from the 'safe haven' into the surrounding hills to carry our attacks on Serb villages. Shots were also fired from within the enclave, in the hope that the Dutch forces and the Bosnian Serbs could be tempted to engage each other in battle. When the Bosnian Serbs were sufficiently persuaded that the UN and NATO would do nothing if they attacked the enclave, they decided at last to answer these provocations. The results are well known.
What other lesson can be drawn from this shameful episode in Dutch history than the lesson of discretion? But has it been learned? Hardly six weeks after the fall of Srebrenica Joris Voorhoeve brought out a book with the title Labiele Vrede ('Unstable Peace'). The conclusion of the last chapter reads as follows:
The most important means of exercising constructive influence available to a state like the Netherlands which is not all that powerful, to the advantage of the development of the global rule of law is to acquire a reputation as a credible partner. Which is to say, bring forward good proposals at just the right moment, covered by a consistent foreign policy, and supported by relatively large economic and if necessary military contributions to the solution of international problems... If the Netherlands wants to be influential, it can achieve this precisely by accepting the risks of joint responsibility in regard to the difficult questions. Those who carry the greater burdens have a greater weight. That goes also for international politics.
The lesson in discretion was then still not learned - but perhaps it was too late by then to stop the presses and revise the book.
Whenever the international community seeks to interfere in internal and regional conflicts, discretion, caution and reserve are called for, certainly in cases where violence is involved. The danger that the cure will turn out worse than the disease is hugely present.
But the disease is so terrible, will come the cry from many. How can we adopt an attitude of discretion, caution and reserve in the face of so much horror?
The question here is, however, not one of morality. It is the question of effectiveness. In other words, . what is it that makes us think that a society elsewhere in the world is indeed malleable when it comes to exceptionally complicated conflicts heavily burdened by history, while we do not believe the same if it concerns our own relatively simple national questions. Those who do not look at the issue of effectiveness and appeal only to moral motives can in the end discover that they have themselves acted immorally. And the people around whom the whole thing began can sometimes end up much worse off than they would have been had discretion, caution and reserve been exercised. Morality becomes cynicism when one's own 'good conscience' is seen as more important than the reality of our fellow human beings. Moral politics without the filter of Realpolitik is mortally dangerous. And it is a cynical play of fate that the same political leaders who in their domestic policies seem to have sacrificed the last remnants of idealism in favour of the 'realism' of the market appear reluctant to draw such a lesson in their foreign policies.
Fortunately there are ever more voices raised by people who do indeed want to learn from past failures. Hans Achterhuis, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Twente, writes in his exceptionally interesting book Politiek van de goede bedoelingen ('The Politics of Good Intentions'), written in response to the Kosovo war: 'If you put the victims at the centre without looking at the political context, you can sometimes create more victims than you help.' BBC journalist Misha Glenny, who wrote the standard work on the events of 1992, The Fall of Yugoslavia, had this to say:
Our understanding of the war in BiH has, regrettably, been clouded by the level of suffering and the tendency of many witnesses to confuse the moral questions raised by the conflict with political issues which caused it....Yet a broad perception has developed outside the Balkans that these are wars fuelled by 'ancient hatreds', as British Prime Minister, John Major, has characterized them. In addition, the theory that the perpetration of atrocities is a central war aim (of the Serbs, in particular) has gained wide currency. This represents a failure of historical understanding which has led to a frequently crass interpretation on the part of the international players involved in the current drama. It has often been encouraged by the local authors to further their political ends, and together, this has ensured that, on the whole, the nebulous blob, which parades under the epithet 'the international community', has contributed to a worsening of the crisis. In order to comprehend the atrocities, we must understand the politics and not the other way round.
While the Dutch political commentator Paul Scheffer wrote the following in NRC Handelsblad of 11th December 1999:
The militarisation of philanthropy could make the world much less safe. Just as the goal for which one is striving can be unconsecrated by the means used... Humanitarian intervention, which is to say war for human rights, cannot become a generally acceptable rule in international relations and must remain a major exception. The armed forces should then also not base their activities increasingly on this doctrine. Otherwise we run the risk that the military supply will begin to create a demand for intervention.
This last point especially should cause us concern. Not only the Netherlands but almost all NATO member states are in the process of transforming their armed forces into intervention forces, to be used for 'conflict prevention' and 'conflict management', or whatever other euphemism might be found in the meantime. In the parliamentary debate in 1993 in which then Defence Minister Relus Ter Beek urges the sending of Dutch troops to Srebrenica, the argument that the Light-Mobile Brigade was available played an important role, just as it did with some of the army top brass - as we have already seen above. And what should we think of Madeleine Albright's now famous reproach in response to General Colin Powell's somewhat reserved reaction to Albright's proposal for a vigorous intervention policy in Bosnia? The most powerful woman in the Balkans said this:'What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?' Powell wrote in his book My American Journey in response to this incident: 'I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs are not toy soldiers to be moved around on some global game board.' The war in Kosovo showed that Colin Powell went unheeded, even if it was ensured that the American toy soldiers flew so high above the board of this game of Risk that they, in any case, escaped with their lives. And in the meantime in the tunnel a new team began to warm up for the broader game of geopolitical power-play - a team that can count the Dutch Ministers of Defence and of Foreign Affairs as being amongst their most fervent.