It would be too cynical if the conclusion from Srebrenica were that the international community should never again protect civilians. The lessons of Srebrenica must address the question of why the UN mission failed so tragically and how real protection should be provided.
Even before the long-awaited publication of the NIOD report on Srebrenica, revelations are coming thick and fast. The expectations of the report are extremely high and will probably be followed by a tough political fight.
However, hardly any attention has been paid to the cardinal question surrounding Srebrenica: what lessons are being learned from the fall of the enclave regarding the protection of civilians threatened by the violence of war?
Since Srebrenica, the Netherlands has adopted a highly restrained position with regard to peace missions. This is understandable in view of the traumatic experiences. But the lessons learned by the Netherlands are clearly reflected in its most important mission since Srebrenica, the UNMEE mission in Ethiopia/Eritrea.
The Netherlands is now taking part in 'low-risk' peace missions whereby its own safety comes first. UNMEE explicitly had no responsibility for the protection of the local population. The agreement was that UNMEE would leave immediately as soon as violence broke out between the warring parties. However, one lesson of Srebrenica is that when the UN and the Netherlands have troops stationed in an area, they assume a moral responsibility towards the population.
The local civilians count on the UN troops for protection. After all, who else can they turn to? More and more often civilians in war zones are being deliberately threatened and murdered. Médecins Sans Frontières works in many of these regions. Our team in Srebrenica witnessed the tragedy that unfolded there.
Our personnel tended the wounded and saw the mortal fear that took control of the people when the Bosnian Serbs advanced. No matter how essential humanitarian aid is to survival in these areas, as a humanitarian organisation we can only shield the civilian population from violence to a very limited degree. If we are not to turn our backs in total indifference, then the international community will have to assume responsibility and act. It will then also have to accept the inevitable obligation to actually protect the people.
The true circumstances of the fall of Srebrenica and the mass murders that followed must come to light. Inevitably, we must recognise the mistakes that were made. This is crucial in order to ensure that people are never again left to their fate in such a way. Moreover, no troops must ever again be confronted with such impossible responsibilities and such tragic failure. Finally, never again must a civilian population be given an illusion of safety, which leads them to mistakenly decide not to flee on time.
It is only through meticulous analysis and an open debate on the events that the right conclusions can be drawn for the future. It would be too cynical if the conclusion from Srebrenica were that we shall never again protect civilians. The lessons of Srebrenica must address the question of why the mission failed so tragically and how real protection should be provided.
We hope that the NIOD report will offer a clear analysis of the failure of the Srebrenica mission and we call upon the Dutch Government to institute an open debate. The results of this debate ought to be that the Netherlands makes clear how and under which circumstances it intends to provide real protection for threatened civilians in crisis zones.