Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Srebrenica Asks Action, But Which?

The seizure of the Moslem enclave of Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces adds yet another item to the catalogue of humiliations suffered by the United Nations Protection Force in former Yugoslavia, and inevitably adds to the clamor for tough action against the Serbs.

The ease with which the Serb forces overran Srebrenica clearly illustrates the meaninglessness of the term "UN-designated safe area" and bodes ill for the inhabitants of the remaining enclaves in eastern Bosnia. The much-vaunted threat of air strikes has once again been exposed as a paper tiger. Knocking out a couple of tanks does nothing to stop an army.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that the United Nations is expected to fulfill a role that it is neither equipped nor mandated to do: namely to impose peace between the warring sides in Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs have flaunted their contempt for the United Nations and international opinion, most notably with their seizure last month of UN personnel as human shields to cover their recovery and redeployment of heavy weapons.

At that point it was clear that the United Nations had to reexamine its role and objectives in the war. So far it has failed to do this, merely preparing to bolster its presence with the so-called rapid-reaction force, which also has no clearly defined purpose.

In the end, the United Nations has three stark choices:

First, it can continue what it is doing now, escorting convoys of food and desperately needed supplies to the civilian population, tens of thousands of whom are only alive today thanks to such efforts. In the meantime, it must endure daily abuses and regular military humiliation.

Second, it can abandon the notion of impartiality and enter the war on the Bosnian government's side. For this to happen, the major powers -- and the United States in particular -- will have to accept the financial and human cost of transforming the sparse and minimally armed UNPROFOR into a genuine fighting force, as well as risking confrontation with Russia.

The third choice, favored by Republicans in the U.S. Congress and the right wing in Western Europe, would be to pull the United Nations out of Bosnia altogether, lift the arms embargo and leave the warring sides to sort it out.

While none of these courses is desirable, the last is surely least acceptable and weakest of all. While the war in Bosnia is brutal and unjust, a free-for-all would be incomparably worse, inevitably bringing in outside parties with rival interests and perhaps spreading into a major conflagration across the Balkans and Eastern Europe. This is the kind of risk that should never be taken.