Why MSF is calling for a parliamentary commission on Srebrenica

On July 11, 1995, Srebrenica fell to the Bosnian Serb forces. The Dutch UN contingent stationed in the area failed to defend the civilian population living in this "security zone." The fall of Srebrenica led to the deportation of 40,000 people and the execution of around 7,000 others. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) entered the Srebrenica enclave in 1993, at the same time as General Morillon. For two years, the organization provided medical support and supplies to the besieged population, officially placed under the protection of United Nations peacekeeping troops. These people had been assured that they would not be abandoned. This "guarantee" was among the reasons why they remained in place, rather than fleeing before the threat of Bosnian Serb forces. The continuous presence of MSF among these people helped maintain the illusion of international protection in the area. In fact, however, the MSF team could only stand and watch as the sick and injured were separated and men were separated from women, and the convoys left for unknown destinations. They also witnessed the inertia of the Dutch UNPROFOR unit. Several dozens of injured and sick people in MSF's care, "evacuated" from the enclave by the Bosnian Serbs and "under Dutch escort," were forced out of the buses and executed by the Serb forces. Twenty-two members of MSF's local staff were also executed. On July 13, five years after these events occurred, MSF requested - in an article in Le Monde, and at a news conference - that a Parliamentary commission of inquiry be created to determine how far France's political and military authorities were responsible for the paralysis of the United Nations and NATO in the face of the Bosnian Serb attack on Srebrenica.
  • MSF's request does not reflect an anti-militarist or anti-Bernard Janvier crusade. On the contrary, we want the commission to learn from what happened, in order to ensure that France never again deploys a military force that is powerless to act in the face of criminal policies implemented against a civilian population.
  • Nor is our request the first step toward a judgement of France's political and military leaders for complicity in crimes against humanity. Our sole purpose is to establish political and military responsibility. The International Criminal Court in the Hague is charged with establishing the criminal responsibilities of those who planned and implemented ethnic cleansing, and with punishing them.
  • The call for a commission of inquiry on Rwanda in 1998 and today's call for an inquiry on Srebrenica reflect a coherent MSF policy designed to evaluate the degree of civilian protection provided by peacekeeping operations. The goal of that policy is to position our ground operations as effectively as possible. France played a major decision-making role
  • The commander of the United Nations Peace Force (UNPF) in the former Yugoslavia was a French general. France is the leading contributor of troops to the United Nations.
  • The security zones were created under Resolution 819, of April 16, 1993, at the initiative of France's General Morillon, and at the suggestion of the French Government (Alain Juppé).
  • Security Council Resolution 836 (June 4, 1993), which authorizes the use of force to protect security zones, was adopted at the initiative of France. The UN report on the fall of Srebrenica is inadequate
  • The United Nations Secretary-General himself recognizes the limits of the transparency initiative implemented under the aegis of the United Nations.
  • The United Nations Secretary-General has requested that the member States involved pursue their investigations further, in order that lessons can be learned from this tragedy.
  • The report of the UN Secretary-General lacks clarity in its efforts to explain the problems involved with the air strikes. On this point the language of the report is highly vague. You have been provided with extracts from the UN report which support the three points above. MSF's call for a commission of inquiry is especially important because it comes at a time when combined military/humanitarian operations are again on the increase. The deployment of peacekeeping operations is one of the tools available to the international community to oppose criminal policies implemented against civilian populations (war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide). The call for a commission of inquiry on Rwanda in 1998 and today's call for an inquiry on Srebrenica reflect a coherent MSF policy designed to evaluate the level of civilian protection provided by peacekeeping operations. The goal of that policy is to position our ground operations as effectively as possible. For several months, we have been seeing a renewed increase in combined military/humanitarian interventions. This phenomenon has been accompanied by a new wave of exploitation of humanitarian action (NATO intervention in Kosovo, Australia's intervention in East Timor, Britain's intervention in Sierra Leone). Several decisions or initiatives adopted at the national or international level appear to confirm this trend. A few examples:
  • the adoption of NATO's new strategic concept, which broadens NATO's role to embrace crisis management, including humanitarian action.
  • the revival of the European defense project, with the deployment in March of the first political and military bodies, charged with creating a European army by 2003 and a European military headquarters by 2001.
  • the policy of the UN Secretary-General to equip the UN with a rapid-reaction force, after he had persuaded member States to accept the system of [[immediate reaction forces.
  • the initiative for the Reinforcement of African peacekeeping capacities (RECAMP) ;
  • the fact that western countries have made it a priority for their national armies to strengthen their capacities to send troops to outside theaters of war. In the face of this renewed increase in combined military/humanitarian operations, and the potential reinforcement of the military presence on the ground, clarification of the roles and responsibilities of each country seems to be essential, in order to ensure that there is no overlapping of responsibilities that might cause harm to civilian populations and to civilian and independent humanitarian action. For it was the humanitarian treatment of Bosnia by the international community that led to the disarming of UN peacekeeping troops, and thus to the tragedy of Srebrenica. France must make a special effort to achieve transparency, in view of:
  • her responsibilities in the area of peacekeeping : France heads the United Nations' department of peacekeeping operations (a senior civil servant, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, runs the department). He succeeded Bernard Miyet (also French). France is among the leading contributors of troops.
  • the strategic role of foreign operations within French defense policy. Sending troops abroad is the second most important strategic function of the French army, it is among the priorities of the new army model, and accounts for most of the funding for major programs involving France's conventional forces. France must participate in efforts to achieve transparency in peacekeeping operations carried out at the national and international level. This transparency constitutes a guarantee of the legitimacy of, and respect for, peacekeeping interventions by France and other countries. It serves to remove any doubts concerning the reasons for foreign military intervention. At the international level:
  • the United Nations reports on the genocide in Rwanda and the fall of Srebrenica. These two reports reflect above all Kofi Annan's concern to restore the moral authority of the United Nations following the disrepute generated by Bosnia and Rwanda and his desire to encourage the emergence of a clearer intervention policy in the Security Council regarding situations of internal conflict and crimes against humanity and genocide.
  • the report of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on the genocide in Rwanda. This report was finalized at the end of May, published on July 7 this year, and sent to African heads of state for the annual summit of OAU heads of state and government, held at Lomé from July 10 to July 12. At the national level:
  • in the Netherlands, the debriefing report of the UN peacekeeping troops deployed at Srebrenica was published in November 1999, and the Dutch Government appointed the National Institute for War Research to conduct an inquiry.
  • in France, whereas the desire for parliamentary control over military operations has already been given concrete form with respect to Rwanda and Kosovo, it has remained strangely paralyzed with regard to Srebrenica. And yet, some twenty Members of Parliament are in favor of such an investigation. A request to set up a commission of inquiry was even made in November 1999, but was subsequently withdrawn. Serious investigations carried out by Dutch and British journalists (Frank Westerman / Bart Rijs / Channel Four) have accused France of paralyzing the United Nations and NATO. The French media have also investigated the issue. These journalists were not interviewed for the preparation of the UN report on Srebrenica. These journalists have provided specific information, which supports two theories:
  • that France, in May 1995, from outside the United Nations, struck an unauthorized deal, under which 300 UN peacekeeping troops taken hostage in May 1995 would be freed in return for a definitive halt to the air strikes. The United Nations report notes that President Yeltsin had stated that French president Jacques Chirac had assured him the use of air strikes in Bosnia had ended. The report also states that NATO Secretary-General sought clarification on this matter from the UN Secretary-General, in a letter dated June 21, 1995 (p. 50 of the report). Those who revealed this deal or who are asking questions about the deal are from a wide range of backgrounds. Furthermore, many are also public officials. This would appear to support the theory that a deal was struck for the freeing of hostages in return for a definitive halt to the air strikes. It requires at least that any public denial in the affair should be made only after a thorough investigation has been carried out.
  • that France attempted, from outside the UN chain of command, to delay and minimize NATO air strikes during the Serb offensive against Srebrenica. The short-circuiting of the United Nations chain of command by President Jacques Chirac is exemplified by the president's direct order of May 27 to the French forces to retake the bridge at Sarajevo. This event was publicly recognized and widely approved by the French media as evidence of more aggressive management of the Bosnian crisis in the wake of François Mitterrand's departure. Furthermore, in peacekeeping operations, this short-circuiting of the UN chain of command by leading contributors of troops is an open secret. Hubert Védrine, France's current Foreign minister, hints strongly at this practice of short-circuiting in his book Les mondes de François Mitterrand (The Worlds of François Mitterrand). Védrine writes that immediately after he was elected, in May 1995, Jacques Chirac initiated a "less UN-dominated and more French-controlled" approach to the management of decision-making mechanisms concerning air strikes. This information has always been dismissed as speculation by the French authorities, but has never been studied or examined critically within the context of an official Parliamentary investigation. It is precisely in order to move on from mere speculation to the establishing of facts that a Parliamentary commission of inquiry should determine how far the French political and military authorities were responsible for a tragedy that led to the deaths of 7,000 protected people. While there is a great deal of confused debate concerning the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing a joint strategy of ground deployment and air support as part of peacekeeping operations, it is important that Members of Parliament uncover the political and military actions and problems that actually led to this human tragedy. Why were NATO air strikes against Srebrenica not authorized, even though:
  • there was no legal impediment to the use of force?
  • the Dutch battalion present on the ground in Srebrenica had asked for such air strikes on several occasions, prepared to assume the personal risks to themselves that such action would have implied?
  • air strikes had been launched on several occasions in 1994, in order to defend the security zones of Goradze (April 10 and 11, 1994) and Bihac (November 21 and 23, 1994), despite a chain of command that was much more complex than the one involved at Srebrenica. At the time of the attack on Srebrenica, General Janvier had in fact had personal authority to authorize the use of air power since July 9.