The award of medals to the Dutchbat 3 soldiers who abandoned the civilians they were obligated to protect has certainly got a response! Participation in the “Aferim!” campaign (linked in the previous post) promoted by the student radio station of Sarajevo has been worldwide in scale, and there have also been press responses. This modest site has not been immune from it, either, since I posted an item on the issue yesterday. Usually East Ethnia gets somewhere between 100 and 150 visits a day. So far today there have been over 1500 visitors (and it is not yet noon here!), nearly all of them from the Netherlands, with a wide variety of responses being left in the comments. Some people are expressing agreement, some offer a different perspective, and some disagree quite vehemently. Of the ones who disagree, there seem to be a few who are under the mistaken impression that the whole issue involves somebody’s mother – I am not quite sure where this association comes from. Leaving those remarks aside, the comments offered in defence of the soldiers of Dutchbat would seem to call for me to define a position more precise than simply outrage at the awarding of medals for abject failure.
First of all, in what does the responsibility of Dutchbat consist? At bottom, in dereliction of duty. Their job was to protect the civilian population, and when the moment of decision came, they decided to protect their own personnel instead. Some of the arguments in defence of Dutchbat come down to pointing out that an effort to protect civilians would have put the soldiers at risk. This can only be persuasive if one fails to distinguish between soldiers, who take on risk as a condition of their employment, and civilians, who do not.
This is of course not the whole story, and a whole variety of other failures (as well as factors contributing to those failures) are detailed in the NIOD report, as well as in other places. In addition to political and military failures and misunderstandings, there were cultural ones, many of them detailed by Guido Snel in a very interesting reflection.
A more persuasive objection has to do with the unenviable situation in which the Dutchbat forces found themselves. The elements of this are summarized in the announcement of the NIOD report. In essence, the unit had poor instruction, poor information and communication, and inadequate support. Some of this was the result of vagueness in the conception of the UN “peacekeeping” mission in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and some of it was the result of decisions made by military commanders from Dutchbat and from forces commanded by the military of other countries.
Some of the problems have to do with problems endemic in the activity of “peacekeeping” itself. In situations in which there is no peace to keep, the activity can – and does – easily devolve into auxiliary support for the warring parties, and peacekeeping forces can easily be used as a secondary strategic resource. Many of the problems have to do with a lack of political will on the part of the UN and the most influential international political actors to take any action that went beyond giving the appearance of concern. That is to say, some of the responsibility for Dutchbat’s dereliction of duty can plausibly be transferred to other actors. This does not diminish the obligation of the commanders to act in accordance with international law and in the interest of the people they are bound to protect. How well this obligation was carried out is illustrated in the photo in the post below, showing colonel Kerremans raising a glass with Ratko Maldić. Živeli, a potom više nisu.
Probably it is the case that minister Kamp saw the distribution of medals as a gesture of reintegration of the soldiers, some of whom must have been traumatized by the obvious failure of their mission, and some of whom were deterred by their commanders from doing what a soldier is obligated to do. This sort of situation may call for therapy, certainly calls for action against the commanders and review of procedures. But a medal on the chest of an accomplice is a slap in the face to the people who trusted and depended on the forces that failed them.