Hague Dutchbat Verdict should make UN operations more effective

Nobody expected judges at The Hague to hold responsible Dutch troops who handed over members of their interpreter’s family to certain torture and execution by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica. Until now, troops operating under UN command – and their governments, have been immune from any liability for their actions (or inaction), as the UN itself is immune from prosecution.

Anyone who’s served with the UN in places like post-invasion Cyprus, the Middle East, Bosnia and Kosovo, will know that the troops of some nations are less effective militarily than others.

As a member of 41 Commando Group, we were transferred en mass to wear the coveted blue beret in order to protect vulnerable Turkish Cypriot villages whose men had left for the frontline, in the more isolated parts of the Troodos Mountains, in what became the southern Greek sector. Although we were not operating as soldiers, it was quite clear to the Greek National Guard, which came sniffing and snooping – aiming to frighten, loot, abuse and worse if allowed, that we could very quickly revert.

The other nations in UNFICYP at that time were notable by where they’d been posted and what they perceived their role to be. Some, particularly those whose governments paid them the UN salaries in addition to their normal national salaries (which in our case the UK government pocketed ), were professional “peacekeepers”, enjoying double-wages, a beach lifestyle and all Cyprus’ lovely wines and natural beauty. The invasion, and what was needed in the aftermath of a real war, were not on their agenda. Special mention however to the Australians, who provided civilian policemen. These guys had their own station in northern Limassol, American cop-style cars with sirens etc, and behaved exactly as the hard-nosed cops they were back in on the streets of Sydney or Melbourne.

As the youngest officer in the Commando, I was put in charge of the 41 Commando Group choir for the UNFICYP Christmas Carol Service, held in the cathedral at Limassol. I think in those early weeks, Nicosia was still too dangerous for such things. Our heart-felt rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was completely eclipsed by the Austrians’ truly beautiful (and exactingly rehearsed) “Silent Night”. It was quite clear that several other contingents had taken this military duty equally seriously, and the choral standard generally was high.

But the Aussie Police beat everyone else hands-down with their rendition of “Six White Boomers”, which for others unfortunate enough not to have been brought up in Oz, has the chorus “Six white boomers, snow white boomers, pulling Santa’s sleight in the Australian sun…” – a boomer being a kangaroo.

But these more recent years, with peacekeeping operations in most places hardened into “peace-enforcement”, real soldiers are required, who obey orders from UN commanders (rather than run everything past their own governments, doing only what they’re told from home), take responsibility for their tactical areas of responsibility, and make autonomous decisions in line with UN command requirements when operational circumstances require it.

This court ruling could – and certainly should – change attitudes. Whereas a bevy of ‘other nations’ are required on UN operations so that for example the USA and UK cannot be accused of intervening under a UN flag of convenience, some of these ‘other nations’ are not ready, equipped or capable of proper military action. The UN must field capable troops ready and willing to fight.

It’s entirely appropriate for the international criminal court to make the offending Dutchbat contingent responsible for having acquiesced to thuggish threats and handed over innocent people to certain death. This preliminary verdict will be the test case for many others, which if finally successful will give the UN the incentive to be something very much more effective than presently. Most would agree that this is what the world desperately needs.

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