UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY
Fifty-fourth session, Agenda item 42
The situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina
15 November 1999, pages 103-104
Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to General Assembly resolution 53/35
The Fall of Srebrenica
B. Role of Bosniak forces on the ground
475. Criticisms have also been leveled at the Bosniaks in Srebrenica, among them that they did not fully demilitarize and that they did not do enough to defend the enclave. To a degree, these criticisms appear to be contradictory. Concerning the first criticism, it is right to note that the Bosnian Government had entered into demilitarization agreements with the Bosnian Serbs. They did this with the encouragement of the United Nations. While it is also true that the Bosnian fighters in Srebrenica did not fully demilitarize, they did demilitarize enough for UNPROFOR to issue a press release, on 21 April 1993, saying that the process had been a success. Specific instructions from United Nations Headquarters in New York stated that UNPROFOF should not be too zealous in searching for Bosniak weapons and, later, that the Serbs should withdraw their heavy weapons before the Bosniaks gave up their weapons. The Serbs never did withdraw their heavy weapons.
476. Concerning the accusation that the Bosniaks did not do enough to defend Srebrenica, military experts consulted in connection with this report were largely in agreement that the Bosniaks could not have defended Srebrenica for long in the face of a concerted attack supported by armour and artillery. The defenders were undisciplined, untrained, poorly armed, totally isolated force, lying prone in the crowded valley of Srebrenica. They were ill-equipped even to train themselves in the use of the few heavier weapons that had been smuggled to them by their authorities. After over three years of siege, the population was demoralized, afraid and often hungry. The only leader of stature [Naser Oric] was absent when the attack occurred. Surrounding them, controlling all the high ground, handsomely equipped with the heavy weapons and logistical train of the Yugoslav army, were the Bosnian Serbs. There was no contest.
477. Despite the odds against them, the Bosniaks requested UNPROFOR to return to them the weapons they had surrendered under the demilitarization agreements of 1993. They requested those weapons at the beginning of the Serb offensive, but the request was rejected by the UNPROFOR because, as one commander explained, “it was our responsibility to defend the enclave, not theirs.” Given the limited number and poor quality of Bosniak weapons held by UNPROFOR, it seems unlikely that releasing those weapons to the Bosniaks would have made a significant difference to the outcome of the battle; but the Bosniaks were under attack at that time, they wanted to resist with whatever means they could muster, and UNPROFOR denied them access to some of their own weapons. With the benefit of hindsight, this decision seems to be particularly ill-advised, given UNPROFOR’s own unwillingness consistently to advocate force as a means deterring attacks on the enclave.
478. Many have accused the Bosniak forces of withdrawing from the enclave as the Serb forces advanced on the day of its fall. However, it must be remembered that on the eve of the final Serb assault the Dutchbat commander urged the Bosniaks to withdraw from defensive positions south of Srebrenica town – the direction from which the Serbs were advancing. He did so because he believed that NATO aircraft would soon be launching widespread air strikes against the advancing Serbs.
479. A third accusation leveled at the Bosniak defenders of Srebrenica is that they provoked the Serb offensive by attacking out of that safe area. Even though this accusation is often repeated by international sources, there is no credible evidence to support it. Dutchbat personnel on the ground at the time assessed that the few “raids” the Bosniaks mounted out of Srebrenica were of little or no military significance. These raids were often organized in order to gather food, as the Serbs had refused access for humanitarian convoys into the enclave. Even Serb sources approached in the context of this report acknowledged that the Bosniak forces in Srebrenica posed no significant military threat to them. The biggest attack the Bosniaks launched out of Srebrenica during the more than two years which is was designated a safe area appears to have been the raid on the village of Visnjica, on 26 June 1995, in which several houses were burned, up to four Serbs were killed and approximately 100 sheep were stolen [there was widespread hunger and starvation in Srebrenica]. In contrast, the Serbs overran the enclave two weeks later, driving tens of thousands from their homes, and summarily executing thousands of men and boys. The Serbs repeatedly exaggerated the extent of the raids out of Srebrenica as a pretext for the prosecution of a central war aim: to create geographically contiguous and ethnically pure territory along the Drina, while freeing their troops to fight in other parts of the country. The extent to which this pretext was accepted at face value by international actors and observers reflected the prism of “moral equivalency” through which the conflict in Bosnia was viewed by too many for too long.