When peacekeepers need to raise their rifles


Sometimes the truth is so blindingly obvious that, in our efforts to be insightful and sophisticated, we completely miss it. Because occasionally there are no shades of grey, no nuance, just good and evil, and we must act with lethal force to protect the innocent.

The world has just marked the tenth anniversary of the massacre by Serbian forces of some 8,000 Muslim men in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

Beginning on 11 July 1995, a few short weeks after the world observed the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps in Poland, and continuing over the next two days, the worst act of genocide on European soil since the Shoah itself took place. The Bosnian Muslims had fled the pursuing Serbs into Srebrenica, believing it was a United Nations safe haven, as it was indeed designated. Six hundred Dutch troops, wearing the blue helmets of UN peacekeepers, were there – supposedly – to protect them.

But when the Serb forces – led by the homicidal Serb nationalist General Ratko Mladic and acting on the orders of the sadistic Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic – arrived, they met little resistance from the Dutch, as they began separating the men from the rest of the refugees. The peacekeepers’ commander, Colonel Karramens, made an urgent plea to the UN high command for ‘close air monitoring’ by NATO, but was turned down. And on the ground, barely a shot was fired by the peacekeepers in defence of the Bosnian Muslims, who, it was obvious, were being despatched to their deaths.

As David Rieff would later recount in his book, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2002), a UN report would ultimately lament its own ‘pervasive ambivalence regarding the use of force in the pursuit of peace’ and ‘an institutional ideology of impartiality, even when confronted with attempted genocide’. If there was ever a time to abandon a distaste for violence, to overcome a squeamish reluctance to identify an enemy – an evil – and to engage it, it was on those soggy, Balkan killing fields a decade ago.

The Dutch troops were operating under the delusion that they were peacekeepers. The problem was there was no peace to keep. The Balkans were riven by a phenomenon that was termed, euphemistically, ‘ethnic conflict’ – in other words, a race war – and the local Serb forces, bristling with old Russian arms, were determined to exterminate a group they saw as genetically inferior. There was no nuance here.

So in the absence of peace, the Blue Helmets were not peacekeepers but peace enforcers, who sometimes have to kill.

Only a year earlier, Canadian-led Blue Helmets in Rwanda had stood helplessly as members of the Hutu tribe slaughtered some 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, denied the chance to intervene to save lives in the interests of preserving just such UN impartiality. Incidentally, the same UN official who a year later would urge caution in Bosnia was on duty when the Canadian commander, General Romeo Dallaire, called. His name was Kofi Annan. Dallaire would later write that with 5,000 armed UN troops, he could have dismantled the Hutus’ genocide machine – as long as his soldiers were willing to shoot.

Surely there is a time to unleash peacekeepers to do their jobs? Surely there comes a time to abandon respect for sovereign rights so we can protect human rights? Surely there is a time to recognise that when there is evil among us – and I’d say heavily armed soldiers or machete-waving militias, driven by racial hatred, constitute evil – our response should not be to tread lightly but to strike decisively?

When one of Mladic’s men had his gun at the head of a refugee, I’d say it was time for those enforcing peace to raise their own rifles in the refugee’s defence. As the maniacal Hutu lunged towards the Tutsi family cowering in the corner of a church, I’d hope the Blue Helmets would aim squarely and shoot him between the eyes. Pardon my primitive reasoning, but I can see neither the logistical problem nor the moral quandary.

By all accounts, this approach worked in East Timor. I remember cheering when I heard an ABC radio report, recorded on the border with West Timor, as Australian troops pursued an Indonesian militia man. ‘There’s the little fucker,’ the soldier spat, taking aim, I hope. This was not bloodlust, and there was no moral ambiguity.

Recall what the Indonesian militias – many of them army special forces in mufti – had done, not just in days after the 1999 independence ballot, but in the previous quarter century: the mass graves, the bodies down the wells, the raping of grandmothers and their eight-year-old grand-daughters. A UN-supervised war crimes trial for the perpetrators would have been preferable, I concede. But given that the militias were herding East Timorese villagers into border camps as hostages, or holding them for an even worse fate, I was happy for them to perish in a hail of gunfire, if that was indeed the way it ended.

Before anyone cries double-standard over the war in Iraq, remember this salient point. The primary purpose of the invasion of Iraq was never to rid the country of a tyrant. George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard have admitted it. The question from Michelle Grattan of The Age, just days before Australian troops went in, makes it clear.

‘If as you advocate, countries in the Security Council got behind the resolution and a miracle happened and Iraq said, yes, the game was up and disarmed, but Saddam Hussein was still there, would this be enough for peace, given the strong case you have made today for regime change in the name of the Iraqi people?’ Howard’s answer was unmistakable: ‘Well, I would have to accept that if Iraq had genuinely disarmed, I couldn’t justify on its own a military invasion of Iraq to change the regime. I’ve never advocated that. Much in all as I despise the regime.’

The stated purpose of the invasion – meaning the lie behind war – was to rid the country of what many people knew were entirely mythical weapons of mass destruction. The real reason, if not solely to plunder the country’s oil wealth, was to establish a regime sympathetic to western commercial interests, as the fattening profits of US corporations such as Halliburton and Bechtel attest. The human rights of the Iraqi had nothing to do with it, given that Saddam’s worst atrocities occurred during the 1980s when he was a firm US ally and bulwark against Iran.

If, however, we could overcome the myriad logistical problems, there is a clear moral case for the establishment of a UN standing army – led by a rotating command from the authentically democratic member states – with a mandate to protect human rights. The intricacies of international law already allow for the violation of national sovereignty to prevent genocide and massacre. And if we could ensure that such action was genuinely altruistic, that the invading forces stood to gain no economic or strategic benefit, it would surely be impossible to let innocents suffer merely to respect national borders.

After the Shoah, the world declared ‘never again’. It’s time we meant it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.