UN accountability & the Bosnian War
The UN needs to be held legally accountable for its actions during the Bosnian War to achieve justice for Bosnian War survivors and to live up to its own legal and moral standards.
Introduction: Mladić’s life verdict – a necessary yet insufficient step towards justice
‘Si vis pacem, cole justitiam. If you desire peace, cultivate justice.’ The question of justice in the Bosnian post-war context has recently been revived through the ICTY’s life sentence for genocide and crimes against humanity for the former Bosnian Serb general Mladić, a central figure in the Bosnian War and the Srebrenica genocide. The article ‘Ratko Mladić: life in prison is as close to justice as his victims will get’ labels the verdict as ‘a victorious end to a process’ of achieving justice. The rule of (international) law can help to contribute to the reconciliation process in post-war contexts. However, holding individual war criminals legally accountable is necessary yet insufficient to achieve justice in the Bosnian post-war context.
The critical role of the UN is reflected by its failure to protect Bosnians during the Bosnian War and the Srebrenica genocide despite its presence and establishment of a UN safe area. In the context of justice, the rule of law implies the equal and fair treatment of everyone regarding human rights and that actors live up to fundamental principles of justice and moral standards. Thus, the UN must be held legally accountable for its role during the Bosnian War for two main reasons:
1) To achieve justice for Bosnian War survivors;
2) To live up to its own legal and moral standards.
Legal accountability of the UN towards achieving justice for Bosnian War survivors
Firstly, it is argued that holding the UN legally accountable for its role during the Bosnian War is of importance towards achieving justice for Bosnian War survivors. Undoubtedly, the UN played an important role in the Bosnian War and the Srebrenica genocide by establishing a safe area in Srebrenica to protect civilians. However, the flawed mandate of the UN safe area not only resulted in a lack of efficiency and effectiveness, but also a passivity of UN officials during the fall of Srebrenica and the systematic killings which initiated the Srebrenica genocide.
By holding only individuals legally accountable, the ICTY and the UN apply a simplistic understanding of justice, neglecting that justice cannot be objectively defined for Bosnian War survivors. Thus, there is a gap regarding the perceptions of justice between the ICTY’s work and the needs of Bosnian War survivors. Thus, the process towards justice for Bosnian War survivors is ongoing.
As such, even years after the Srebrenica genocide, a trial on legal accountability may achieve justice for Bosnian War survivors by compressing time, bringing the past closer to the present. At the same time, legal accountability also has its limits in compressing time. Several Bosnian War survivors have died in the past years and will thus never witness a potential trial on the legal accountability of the UN. In this context, it can be argued that justice for Bosnian War survivors can be achieved post-mortem, yet to a limited degree.
For this to happen, the UN must be critical of its role during the Bosnian War instead of regarding itself as an ‘out of law’ organisation that cannot be held legally accountable. This perception leaves a gap when it comes to justice for Bosnian War survivors who initially saw the UN and the so-called UN ‘safe area’ as a safe place of refuge. Justice will not be achieved for Bosnian War survivors unless the UN critically engages with its passive role by holding itself legally accountable.
Legal accountability of the UN to live up to its own discourse and standards
Secondly, it is argued that not holding the UN legally accountable for its role during the Bosnian War goes against the UN's fundamental principles and moral standards. As outlined in the introduction, to be a rule of law actor, one must live up to one’s fundamental principles and moral standards. Regarding the UN, fundamental principles and moral standards include ‘accountability and respect for human rights’ and its self-definition as an international organisation as outlined in the UN’s Code of Ethics. By not being held legally accountable, the UN is particularly failing in living up to its self-declared fundamental principle of accountability and its discourse of being an international organisation that transcends nation-state divisions.
The UN’s self-image as standing above the law is exemplified by the fact that UN officials who were present in the Bosnian War and the Srebrenica genocide have been held legally responsible as State officials, for example the ‘Dutchbat III’ soldiers. Officially, these soldiers were on a UN mission based on a UN mandate yet when it comes to their legal responsibilities, they were primarily affiliated to nation-states such as the Netherlands.
This is problematic from a legal standpoint since all actors are said to be treated equally before the law, yet the UN seems to have legal immunity. Furthermore, it should be morally questioned that the UN portrays itself as an international organisation that goes beyond nation-state boundaries and nationalist perceptions. However, in a way it fuels these nationalistic perceptions by reverting to State divisions when it comes to legal accountability of UN actors.
Moreover, by not holding itself legally accountable the UN gives the impression that it is not critically engaging with its own actions. This suggests that the UN will not make structural changes in future peace missions. Not only does this diminish the UN’s reputation as an organisation seeking to foster global peace, it also makes future UN peace missions and the establishment of safe areas for civilians unreliable and uncredible.
Conclusion: The legal accountability of the UN is a necessity
The UN must be held legally accountable for its failure to protect Bosnians in the UN safe area during the Bosnian War and the Srebrenica genocide. By not holding itself legally accountable, the UN is failing to achieve justice for Bosnian War survivors and to live up to its fundamental principles of justice and moral standards. If the UN desires to implement peace it should cultivate justice and start by holding itself legally accountable.