Accepting a measure of blame for the deaths of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, the United Nations today issued a long-awaited report that says U.N. officials appeased and unwittingly abetted Bosnian Serb forces who overran the town of Srebrenica and massacred many of its residents in July 1995.
The extraordinary admission results from an internal investigation, based on U.N. archives and interviews with more than 100 officials, into the fall of Srebrenica, which the United Nations had declared a "safe area" and placed under the protection of 150 Dutch peacekeeping troops.
"It was with the deepest regret and remorse that we have reviewed our own actions and decisions in the face of the assault on Srebrenica," Secretary General Kofi Annan writes in the report. "Through error, misjudgment and an inability to recognize the scope of evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder."
The 155-page report provides a chilling chronology. On July 6, 1995, as Bosnian Serb forces began their assault on the town, senior U.N. commanders rejected appeals from the Dutch peacekeepers for NATO air support. The U.N.'s local officer also refused to release weapons to the Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves.
In the following days, thousands of fleeing Muslims were gunned down or summarily executed. The remains of 2,500 victims, mostly boys and men, have been recovered from mass graves, and thousands of others are missing, the report says.
"Srebrenica was the greatest collective failure of the West since the 1930s," Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to United Nations and the architect of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian war, said in an interview. "I'm very pleased the U.N. is making an effort to come to terms with one of the great disgraces of the international system."
The report, however, says the blame is not the United Nations' alone.
It says the 15-nation U.N. Security Council was the chief architect of policies toward Bosnia that were doomed to fail. Although the Dutch peacekeepers were outgunned, they also came under criticism for failing to fire on the town's besiegers. Major powers, including the United States, refused to provide intelligence on Serbian troop movements. France, Britain and the Netherlands, who had the most peacekeepers in Bosnia, were eager to avoid confrontation.
Yet the report reserves its harshest criticism for the U.N. leadership, particularly former secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali; his senior commander, Lt. General Bernard Janvier of France; and his top envoy, Yasushi Akashi of Japan. They vigorously opposed the use of air power against the Serbs.
The release of the report coincided with an unprecedented meeting of three members of Bosnia's joint Muslim, Croat and Serb presidency at the U.N. Security Council. The three leaders--Alija Izetbegovic, Arte Jelavic and Zivko Radisic-- agreed Sunday in a "mini-Dayton" at Holbrooke's residence in the Waldorf Astoria to create joint border police, a single Bosnian passport and a 15-member multi-ethnic secretariat aimed at solidifying Bosnia's government.