20 Years After Srebrenica: What the Responsibility to Protect Asks of Germany

Brockmeier Rotmann 20 Years After Srebrenica

Twenty years ago this July, Serb paramilitaries murdered more than 8,000 people around the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, most of them boys and men. The United Nations had declared the town a “safe area” for civilians, but when matters were taken to the extreme, neither the governments around the world nor the UN bureaucracy were willing to back their political promise with military muscle. Dutch blue helmets on the ground helplessly watched the slaughter.

Now, 20 years later, Germany’s defense minister Ursula von der Leyen and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are working on a new “White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr.” The white paper will need to translate lofty calls for Germany to take more responsibility – a responsibility that arises “out of responsibility for our history” and “out of our humanitarian obligation,” in von der Leyen’s words – into practical objectives for the next decade.

What is “our humanitarian obligation” as Germans and as Europeans? Doing nothing and looking away violates this moral duty, as President Joachim Gauck rightfully reminds us time and again. But there are no easy solutions for doing right, least of all purely military ones. The defense white paper is an opportunity to have a political debate about what we want to do, what we are able to do, and what we must be able to do in order to protect civilians from mass atrocities, such as genocide. By endorsing the “responsibility to protect” 10 years ago, Germany committed itself to this objective. Paying lip service will not be sufficient: in the next white paper, the government needs to define a tangible German and European contribution to the implementation of the responsibility to protect over the coming decade. It is no longer enough only to complain about the shortcomings of international institutions. Germany has to play a role in leading and shaping change.

The cases of Syria, Darfur, and South Sudan show that many governments do not fulfil their responsibility to protect. The UN Security Council mandates the protection of civilians but lacks the political and military capacity to enforce it. The killing continues. NATO and the European Union rarely operate in Africa, and even more rarely do they operate to protect civilians. In 2011, NATO air strikes in Libya probably saved thousands of lives, but the alliance has not done enough to build a stable post-war order. As a result, NATO shares in the responsibility for the ongoing civil war.

South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo also show that it is neither NATO nor the EU, but the UN whose peace operations provide at least basic protection for parts of the civilian population in danger. With very little support from Europe, UN peacekeepers accept substantial risks and suffer from blatant gaps in qualified staff, equipment, and resources. This could be a starting point for concrete reform efforts.

In the 20 years since Srebrenica, many things have changed for the better for the blue helmets. More than 120,000 soldiers, police, and civilian experts employ mainly civilian means to issue timely warnings to populations in danger, to pressure potential perpetrators, and to protect hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons sheltering at and around UN bases. In the rare case that UN member states provide the necessary military means, it is even possible to effectively deter and neutralize individual militias – thanks to the commitment of Indian, South African, or Tanzanian troops.

The growing demand for peace missions has brought the system of UN peace operations to the brink of collapse. The troops sent by the Security Council often arrive late and in smaller numbers. Appropriate equipment is lacking everywhere. And especially those states in the Global South whose troops have proven competent and courageous are less and less willing to put their soldiers’ lives at risk while wealthy countries sit back and point only to their financial contributions.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon leaves behind an ambitious reform agenda for peace operations. In June, an expert panel chaired by Nobel Peace Prize winner José Ramos-Horta made a number of recommendations. The panel urged the UN and member states to use peacekeepers as part of political strategies rather than substitutes for them, to design missions according to the needs on the ground rather than the preferences of the bureaucracy, and to re-balance the global partnership between the main donors and the main troop contributors.

Europe will be crucial to the success or failure of this turnaround. Aside from the United States, the Europeans are uniquely capable of bringing to bear both political clout and crucial military capabilities at a relevant scale. Germany plays a key role in shaping the EU contribution. If Germany continues to deploy fewer than 200 troops and effectively hide behind countries such as Finland and Ireland, others in Europe will shirk their responsibilities as well. Together with France and the United Kingdom, Germany must take the lead if the process is to gain momentum and create a critical mass for change.

The German public is not opposed to any of this. According to a poll conducted by TNS Infratest, a large majority of Germans support military operations “to prevent acts of genocide” (82 percent) or “to participate in international peacekeeping measures” (74 percent). To support effective global peacekeeping is not only in the interest of Germany and Europe, but also part of the historical responsibility of a country that caused so much suffering in the world.

The new white paper has to reflect this responsibility. Vague phrases describing the responsibility to protect as a “doctrine in international law” with “long-term implications,” as in the 2006 version of the document, must be replaced with practical objectives for shaping its implementation. This primarily means filling gaps in diplomatic capacity and aligning development policy more effectively with the prevention of mass atrocities. But it also means offering those key military capabilities “that other nations do not have in the same way,” as von der Leyen said, to operations that effectively contribute to protecting civilians from mass atrocities and to political conflict resolution – even if the mission headquarters flies the light blue flag of the UN rather than the dark blue one of NATO or the EU.

Joint European initiatives could close many gaps, both quickly and sustainably. Competent and committed peacekeepers always face the same capability gaps: air transport, reconnaissance, field hospitals, military observers, engineers, and signal units, to name but a few. Here, Europe could make a substantial contribution with relatively low numbers. Where these capabilities are scarce, they need to be expanded. Budget planning reflects political priorities. Fixing such long-term priorities is precisely the purpose of strategy documents like the white paper.

Twenty years after Srebrenica, UN safe areas are still vulnerable. Over 100,000 people in South Sudan have fled to UN bases since December 2013, taxing the capacity of peacekeepers to its limits. In some cases, killing mobs managed to breach the camps and slaughter more than 300 people for their ethnic affiliation alone. The blue helmets on the ground desperately need what the Dutch would have needed 20 years ago: adequate equipment and resolute political support.

For the Netherlands, the failure in Srebrenica became a national trauma. The country drew the lesson “never again to be outgunned in an operation,” as a Dutch diplomat recently said. Today, the Netherlands deploys 450 soldiers in Mali alone – not to wage war, but to enable a peace process without being vulnerable to blackmail by every militia. It is time for Germany to follow suit. The white paper provides a unique opportunity to do so.

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To read a version of this piece in German, please visit Die Welt online.