New documents shed light on Srebrenica failings 20 years on

According to recently uncovered documents, the decision by France, Britain and the United States to stop air strikes without warning Dutch authorities likely paved the way to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP | People mourn over coffins of their relatives in Srebrenica on July 9, 2015 where 136 bodies found in mass grave sites in eastern Bosnia will be reburied on 20th anniversary of the massacre

The slaughter of thousands of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces in the span of three days has been described as the worst massacre on European soil since World War Two, and as an act of genocide by international courts. At the time, the town was one of six so-called “safe areas” under the protection of both NATO and the United Nations.

Dutch blue helmets were in charge of protecting civilians in Srebrenica at that time. Ever since the tragedy, Dutch authorities have been accused, and even sued in court, of not doing enough to stop the rampage by Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic’s troops.

However, as the world commemorates the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica, new information may be shedding light on the sombre episode. France, Britain and the US allegedly took a significant military decision without informing its allies, most critically, the Netherlands.


Dutch ‘kept in the dark’

In late May 1995, six weeks before the Serb assault on Srebrenica, then presidents Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac, as well as then British premier John Major reportedly agreed to suspend NATO air strikes against Serb forces without alerting Dutch officials – contrary to the explicit commitments made to the Netherlands that such strikes would be provided within two hours of a Serb attack if needed.

“The Dutch commander of the peacekeepers in Srebrenica asked for close air support nine times and it was also promised to me. But nothing arrived until it was too late,” Joris Voorhoeve, who was then Dutch defence minister, told FRANCE 24 in a recent interview.

“I found that behind this was an agreement between the three governments of the United Kingdom, France and the United States not to use airstrikes anymore… The three allies should have discussed their decision to suspend air power with the Netherlands government. We were kept in the dark,” Voorhoeve lamented.


He was referring to US documents that were declassified two years ago. Notes from a May 28, 1995 meeting of the so-called Principals Committee – the top policy makers of the Clinton administration – say: “Officials decided to suspend ‘quietly’ the use of airstrikes against the Serbs for the foreseeable future, as UN peacekeepers were too vulnerable to Serb retaliation. This was a position supported by Chirac as well as Major (as both expressed to the President the day before).”

The “vulnerability” of UN peacekeepers is a reference to a Serb move a few days earlier to take some 400 blue helmets – including British and French soldiers – hostage, chaining them to strategic sites, in retaliation for an air strike.

The revelations first came to light in “Why Srebrenica had to fall”, a Dutch documentary film produced for Argos TV by journalists Bart Nijpels and Huub Jaspers.

Complicity or collective failure?

Voorhoeve also claimed he had seen intelligence reports according to which two permanent members of the UN Security Council – he refused to name them but FRANCE 24 was able to identify the two as the US and the UK – had intelligence in late May 1995 of an impending Serb offensive on the three “safe areas” in Eastern Bosnia (Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde) but did not share it with the Dutch.

“I have seen the intelligence that [the US and UK] had been informed by the Bosnian Serbs that they were going to take the Eastern enclaves within the next three weeks,” Voorhoeve told FRANCE 24. “This information had never been shared with us and arrived in The Hague only after the fall of Srebrenica…. It was a lack of sharing of key intelligence.”


Mohammed Sacirbey was Bosnia’s foreign minister at the time. He has long claimed that Western countries had granted a “yellow” light to the Serbs to seize control of Srebrenica as a way to facilitate a peace deal reached several months later in Dayton, Ohio.

In light of the latest information, Sacirbey says there was actually a “green light.”

According to the former top diplomat, not only did France, the UK and the US keep Dutch authorities in the dark, they let top Serbian leaders and military officials know that they in fact had “a green light to go into Srebrenica.”

“I think it’s more accurate to now speak of acquiescence or even complicity” Sacirbey told FRANCE 24 in a separate interview in reference to Western failings in Srebrenica.

Voorhoeve does not believe there is any evidence of such a deal with the Serbs. He stressed that while the revelations are important to understand the “collective failure” to save Srebrenica, the main responsibility lies with the Bosnian Serb leadership.

Fourteen men have been convicted at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader, await verdicts in their trials for genocide.

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