Potocari memorial near the Srebrenica safe area Photo © Birgit Kruitwagen

News & views | 23 November 2016 | by Birgit Kruitwagen

Potocari memorial near the Srebrenica safe area Photo © Birgit Kruitwagen

The Sceptre of Srebrenica

The failure to protect civilians in the Srebrenica safe area in 1995, culminated in the murder of more than 8,000 boys and men. The lessons learned from the horrific events at Srebrenica continue to affect the thinking about methods to protect civilians in conflict to this day. This blog is the first in a short series about those lessons, part of the internship of Birgit Kruitwagen who looks specifically at the concept of safe areas historically and today.

The fall of the Srebrenica safe area marked a turning point in more than one way. First, it was an important moment in the war in Bosnia Herzegovina, as it marked the start of a stronger offence against the Bosnian Serb forces. While the Bosnian Serbs saw the events in Srebrenica as a victory, their actions were not tolerated by the West and led to a more aggressive strategy that included heavy bombing by NATO combined with large offensives by the Croatian and Bosnian armies. Second, it also played an important part in discussions on the role of the international community during conflicts and the establishment of concepts such as the Responsibility 2 Protect.

Being established in a period of Post-Cold War optimism, the Srebrenica safe area was established to protect Bosnian Muslim civilians, most of whom had fled from other parts of Bosnia that were under Bosnian-Serb control. The reasoning at the time was that by offering them protection in centralised locations, they would be sheltered from the on-going war and violence raging through Bosnia. At least on paper, those inside the safe area would be protected and could receive humanitarian aid. Moreover, safe areas enabled those who might otherwise be inclined to cross the border, to stay in their own country. The idea was thus in line with the trend at the time that refugees were no longer seen solely as victims of a lack of security during times of conflict, but also as a cause of more destabilisation and insecurity. While the concept has become contested since 1995, to some the safe areas are still an appealing option when thinking about possibilities to protect civilians in conflicts today, such as in Syria.

The concept of areas designated for the protection of civilians during times of conflict goes back way further than 1995. Throughout history several arrangements have been made for neutral areas in which civilians could find shelter during times of war. The concept of safe areas as it is known today is based on the ‘neutral zones’ recorded in the 1949 Geneva Convention. While a neutral zone was initially only meant for a select group and purpose, such as taking care of the military sick and wounded during a conflict, the concept was later expanded to include protection for an entire civilian population, regardless of age, sex, or health status. Two important factors of these neutral zones were that they were based on the consent of the warring parties and that a zone should be completely demilitarized: those inside the zone were not allowed to take part in any military activity.

While being based on the neutral zones defined in the Geneva Convention, safe areas as we know them today depend on neither consent nor demilitarization. In the case of Srebrenica, the Bosnian Serbs did not agree with the establishment of a safe area on territory that they wanted to obtain. In that sense, the safe area was implemented without consent from all parties in the conflict. While it was argued that in the case of such an enforced safe area a credible treat was needed to deter attacks on the area, only a limited number of troops were deployed with a mandate that allowed force only in self-defence. The promised air support, which was part of the ‘threat’, was not given when asked for.

Demilitarization in the Srebrenica safe area also turned out to be problematic. Military activity continued from within the safe area, something that the UN decided to condone, as it felt ‘wrong’ to take weapons from the Bosniaks who were considered to be the victims. However, this further compromised the safety of those inside the safe area. The Bosnian Serbs felt threatened by the lootings in the area surrounding the safe area and the attacks taking place from within the safe area. This made them even more unwilling to accept the safe area.

The war in Bosnia Herzegovina has been referred to as a ‘new war‘, in which the displacement or even the complete elimination of a rival (ethnic) groups is the goal, and in which civilians become targets themselves. What stands out, as a lesson from Srebrenica, is that in such a situation, putting refugee citizens in one area that is completely surrounded by ‘enemy territory’ can have deleterious effects. In addition, it is increasingly difficult to recognise who is a civilian, who is a combatant and who is a regular soldier in these conflicts.

What Srebrenica taught us, is that when the decision to establish a designated safe area is not based on consent, when the forces that are protecting it lack credible military means to protect, and while military activity continues from within the area, this area is by no means ‘safe’. Nevertheless, these lessons that were learned the hard way in Srebrenica do not necessarily mean that the concept of safe areas should be completely thrown overboard. Instead, I would argue that if a safe area is established with consent from warring parties, and protected by a force that can credibly deter attacks from outside and demilitarise inside, safe areas have the ability to actually save lives.

Potocari memorial near the Srebrenica safe area Photo © Birgit Kruitwagen

Potocari memorial near the Srebrenica safe area Photo © Birgit Kruitwagen

The case of the Srebrenica safe area is considered a dark page in the history of UN peacekeeping. Nevertheless, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon argued, we should learn from the lessons of Srebrenica. During his visit at the Srebrenica-Potočari memorial on 26 of July 2012, he argued that these lessons are particularly valuable in Syria, where “we have to do all [that we can] to protect civilians, to prevent and to stop bloodshed”. In the next few weeks I will look into the case of Syria, where one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21th century is taking place. There are calls for action, but it remains unclear and contested what action should be taken. The establishment of safe areas has been suggested, but the concept remains contested because of its failure in Srebrenica. Nevertheless, keeping the words of Ban Ki-moon in mind, perhaps the lessons of Srebrenica will help us improve the concept of safe areas to such an extent that it can be of aid in the protection of civilians. In my next blog I will try to find an answer to the question: To what extent can the lessons from Srebrenica considering consent or enforcement, credible treat, demilitarization and geographical location be applied in Syria?

Birgit Kruitwagen interns at PAX, researching how the failure of the Srebrenica safe area can help us understand the discussions on the implementation of safe areas in Syria. This research is part of the master’s programme ‘Conflicts, Territories and Identities’ at the Radboud University Nijmegen.

The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of PAX or the Radboud University Nijmegen

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