Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Srebrenica Evidence Kept Under Wraps
The French Ministry of Defence has once again cheated the public of crucial information on the international community's role in the fall of the Srebrenica enclave in 1995.
The ministry last week insisted that two senior French officers, Generals Philippe Morillon and Bernard Janvier, both former commanders of the United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR, in Bosnia, give vital evidence at a closed session of a parliamentary inquiry into events leading up to the tragedy. The inquiry has so far been open to the public.
The decision was immediately criticised by journalists and campaigners acting for the Srebrenica relatives.
Marc Semo, a journalist on the French daily newspaper Liberation, criticised the defence ministry's decision. "This is not the way for France to examine her conscience," he said. Franciose Bouchet-Saulnier from the French charity Medecins Sans Frontiers, MSF, said it had damaged the parliamentary investigation.
The inquiry - charged with establishing the role of French military and political figures in the fall of the UN protected area - was reluctantly set up last July following concerted pressure from MSF.
Bosnian Serb troops under the command of General Ratko Mladic, indicted by The Hague tribunal for genocide, entered Srebrenica in July 1995. Within days, over 7,000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up and murdered, many as they tried to flee the area on foot.
For years, relatives of those killed at Srebrenica have sought answers from Janvier, UNPROFOR commander at the time, as to why he did not act to save the enclave by ordering air strikes against the advancing Bosnian Serb forces.
In November 1999, the UN published its own damning 150-page report into the fall of Srebrenica.
"We committed unforgivable mistakes in assessing the extent of evil that we were facing, and because of that we did not succeed in protecting the inhabitants of Srebrenica from the planned attack and massacre committed by Serbian forces," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said.
The French have a special interest in the case. In 1993, Morillon, then UNPROFOR commander, entered the besieged Srebrenica enclave and promised to protect the population. An alarmed international community declared the area a UN protected zone.
Two years later, Morillon's successor, Janvier, had the option to order NATO air strikes against Mladic's advancing forces, but chose not to do so.
Janvier's inaction provoked those campaigning for Srebrenica victims to demand he appear before The Hague tribunal, charged as an accomplice in the killings alongside Mladic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
Certainly the French inquiry would want to know the substance of Janvier's three meetings with Mladic in June 1995, just weeks before the Bosnian Serb forces struck.
MSF believes Janvier and Mladic came to a written or verbal agreement whereby the Bosnian Serbs promised not to take UNPPROFOR personnel hostage in exchange for non-intervention.
The French investigators are also interested in the content of Janvier's contacts with senior French political and military figures at the time.
The then French Prime Minister Alain Juppe said he met Janvier in Paris on July 8, 1995, just as Mladic was busy deploying his troops around Srebrenica. But who else Janvier met remains a mystery.
Juppe said his discussions with Janvier concerned the siege of Sarajevo. "We did not even mention Srebrenica," Juppe claimed.
Janvier and Morillon are among some 30 senior French officers called as witnesses by The Hague tribunal. But both men also appeared there behind closed doors. The French Ministry of Defence used these private hearings as justification for their own decision to exclude the public from the Paris session.
"It is necessary for public figures, summoned by the Parliamentary Mission On Srebrenica, to testify in an analogous manner...Only in that way can the mission continue its work, enabling The Hague tribunal to carry on its actions," a defence ministry statement said.
But Hague tribunal spokesman Christian Chartier said the investigative procedure at The Hague was not dependent on the conduct of the French inquiry. "There is no agreement on this between The Hague tribunal and the French government," he said.
Juppe appeared at the Paris inquiry on January 24 and tried to blame the Dutch for the international community's failure to intervene. He said two F-16 aircraft dropped four bombs on Serb positions on July 11, 1995, but claimed the Dutch demanded the raids be called off because they threatened the security of their soldiers stationed in Srebrenica.
Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo immediately denied Juppe's accusation. "It is not true that we refused help," he said. "On the contrary, we did not stop requesting intervention, but General Janvier refused to offer it to us for reasons that have remained unclear to this day."
Mierlo claimed intervention, when it did finally come, was too late. "Mladic threatened that in case of renewed bombing he would fire on the Dutch base. At that point there were several thousand Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) refugees and about a 100 'blue helmets' (UN troops) at the base. We would have been knee deep in blood. Only then did we request the cancellation of the bombing."
MSF believes President Chirac had full knowledge of Janvier's "restrained" policy - a claim denied by a former diplomatic advisor to the president, Jean-David Levitte.
"President Chirac did not at any point oppose bombing which would prevent the attack of Serbian forces on Srebrenica," said Levitte, who claimed the MSF allegations were aimed at "smearing Chirac's honour".
Levitte said Chirac, who was attending a Franco-German summit in Strasbourg when news of the fall of Srebrenica came through, "exploded with fury when he heard".
"Eighteen NATO alliance planes could have intervened on July 11, 1995," Levitte said. "Six received orders to do so. Two aircraft dropped bombs at 14.40 that day. But the Bosnian Serbs then threatened on the radio that they would bomb Srebrenica and kill the detained Dutch soldiers. The Dutch authorities raised the alarm and on several occasions requested the cancellation of NATO intervention."
Levitte's comments will undoubtedly re-ignite the controversy over who in the international community is more responsible for the Srebrenica tragedy - the Dutch battalion in Srebrenica or the French UN commanders .
Janvier's explanations remain central to the inquiry. Did he underestimate the scale of Mladic's offensive? Did the French or other European governments prevent intervention in order to get rid of the last Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia - one that was proving increasingly difficult to maintain? Was the division of Bosnia into two entities some six months after the Srebrenica massacres made possible when the enclave was handed over?
MSF is pushing for the parliamentary investigation to make public Janvier's comments. "The hole in the investigation can only be closed if General Janvier's statement is published in its entirety," said Bouchet-Saulnier.
Dzevad Sabljakovic is the Paris correspondent for the SENSE agency.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight