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When to Use Force and When to Avoid It

Craig Jenness
Former Head of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) Mission to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Skopje) (2001–03), and currently serving as the Senior Advisor to the Special Representative of the Secretary General, United Nations Mission in Kosovo

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak at this distinguished gathering and to be part of this fantastic weekend.

I will try to contribute a little to the discussion on the basis of my practical experiences with the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – focusing particularly in the former Yugoslavia, where I was involved in three international interventions – Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999 and Macedonia in 2001.

I hope do two things in my 15 minutes of fame at Couchiching.

  1. Shortly recap the events leading up to the decisions to intervene in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. You can think about these interventions in the light of what you have heard from my colleagues about the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, and form your own opinion as to whether the use of force was justified in these cases – particularly in Bosnia and Kosovo.
  2. Offer a few personal comments on the use of force in a peacekeeping context, and on intervention generally.

Obviously its impossible to effectively summarize what happened and why during the death of Yugoslavia. But I hope to give you a flavor.


The Bosnian war began in 1992, after a referendum for independence which was supported by about 2/3 of the population, consisting of Bosnian Muslims – known as Bosniacs – and Croats. The referendum was not supported by the 30% or so Serbs, who did not want to see Bosnia separate from Yugoslavia. The war started between the Serbs and the other two ethnicities, but within a year the Croats and Bosniacs were also fighting each other. The war was vicious. There were in the end as many as 200,000 people killed or missing; over 1 million people displaced from their homes. The phrase “ethnic cleansing” was born in Bosnia.

The international community responded initially with rather fragmented and therefore weak EU diplomacy and with an under-quipped and “under-mandated” UN peacekeeping mission known as UNPROFOR.

UNPROFOR was lightly armed, and rather small. Its mandate began as protection of the Sarajevo airport; gradually and somewhat haphazardly expanded to assisting in securing delivery of humanitarian aid; and eventually to protection or deterrence of attacks on so called “safe areas”. The “safe areas” were six Bosnian Muslim majority towns surrounded or under siege from the Bosnian Serbs. The UN SG asked for about 35,000 troops for these enclaves. The UN member states responded with only about 7,000. Canada had troops in Bihac and for a time in Srebrenica. In Srebrenica we were replaced by the Dutch.

There were additional responses, including an arms embargo, a sanctions regime against Belgrade, and a border monitoring mission to prevent arms coming from Serbia to Bosnia.

In 1995, the Bosnian Serbs attacked two of the safe areas in the east – Zepa and Srebrenica. The story of Srebrenica is well known. On a day a little more than July 10 years ago, Dutch peacekeepers handed over thousands of men that had taken refuge in their camp to Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic and his troops. Most of these men were executed. Thousands of women became widows or were left childless.

Shortly thereafter, the international community issued an ultimatum to the Bosnian Serb army – If another safe area was attacked, the response would be massive air strikes. Subsequently, the Sarajevo market was shelled – for the second time during the war. Over 30 people were killed. NATO began a bombing campaign which destroyed the Bosnian Serb military capacities, and forced them to the bargaining table. The Dayton Agreement ending the war was signed on December 1995.

Today, Bosnia is peaceful, but politically divided. In an amazing achievement, property and housing was returned to those that had been ethnically cleansed, and many of the refugees have gone home.


Kosovo was not a republic but an autonomous region within Yugoslavia. It has a very large majority ethnic Albanian population; at the same time a special historic and cultural importance for Serbs. After period of tension in the 1980s, Slobodan Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomy and abolished many of its political institutions. Kosovo Albanian resistance began as a passive movement. But after the leader of the passive movement failed at the Dayton peace conference to convince the international community to send a peacekeeping Mission; the resistance became more violent.

The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) emerged; and armed clashes began with Serbian authorities. By summer of 1998, hundreds were dead and tens of thousands were displaced. There was worry that the conflict would spill into neighboring Macedonia, which was itself struggling with tensions between its minority ethnic Albanian and majority ethnic Macedonian (Slav) populations.

In October 98, the United States brokered a ceasefire. 2000 unarmed OSCE monitors were sent in, without military support. The ceasefire quickly broke down; and there were numerous violent clashes, continued deaths and displacements.

The IC then tried a package – NATO announced it was prepared to use air strikes against Serbia, at the same a peace conference was called in Rambouiliet, France. Kosovo Albanians were strong-armed by the US into signing a peace deal. Serbia refused to sign. OSCE monitors were withdrawn, and NATO began bombing on 24 March. The bombing was not sanctioned by the UN; as the security council was bypassed in order to avoid a Russian veto. The action was – and remains – controversial.

The bombing lasted 58 days. During that period violence escalated within Kosovo and as many as 800,000 people fled or were expelled. After it appeared that ground troops might be sent in, and when it became clear that Russia would not bail him out, Mr. Milosevic agreed to terms offered by a Russian/Finnish team.

A UNSC resolution placed Kosovo under UN administration; which included significant contributions from the OSCE and EU. Serbian police and military withdrew, replaced by NATO troops. Most displaced people returned within months. But the Serbs that remained in Kosovo became the objects of a campaign of violence and revenge; at least 150 were murdered in the months that followed the withdrawal of Serbian security forces.

Today Kosovo remains formally under UN administration. However most functions not directly related to sovereignty have been transferred from the UN to Kosovo institutions. Ethnic tensions remain, although violence is rare. A special UN envoy is as we speak assessing whether the conditions have evolved to the point where talks should begin on the final status of Kosovo.


The crisis in Macedonia is not that well remembered. Troubles began in early 2001, when skirmishes began between the minority ethnic Albanians and the majority ethnic Macedonian population. The initial response was again unarmed OSCE and EU monitors; coupled with heavy and coordinated diplomatic pressure from an EU and US. In August, after about 6 months of sporadic fighting, a settlement was reached. The Ohrid Agreement gave greater political rights to ethnic Albanians in exchange for disarmament and promises to renounce violence and support political and legal processes. EU, NATO, OSCE and the United States were principle supporters of the agreement. A “clip-board army” consisting mostly of 150 unarmed OSCE civilian and monitors, was dispatched to former crisis areas to help keep the peace. A small NATO force was deployed to assist in demobilizing and disarming the rebels, and to support the observers. The first ever “EU” military operation eventually took over tasks from NATO.

Today Macedonia is stable, OSCE Mission remains in reduced strength, NATO and EU troops have left; EU police mission. The former NLA rebels have transformed themselves into a political party, and are in coalition government.

So to summarize –

The Bosnian conflict lasted 4 years. The toll included 200,000 dead; 25,000 missing; 1,000,000 displaced; and Srebrenica. NATO bombs were used to bring Bosnian Serbs to the table.

The armed conflict in Kosovo lasted perhaps 18 months, producing 8-10,000 dead; 3,000 missing. NATO bombed Serbia for 57 days, until Belgrade essentially agreed to turn over the province to the UN. The bombing operation did not have the support of the UN Security Council, which had been sidestepped as it was known that Russia would veto use of force.

The Macedonian conflict lasted about 8 months, and left a few hundred dead; less than 30 missing; and about 120,000 IDPs. A political agreement stopped the violence, and invited regional organizations to assist in maintaining the peace. The UN was not significantly involved.

I will leave it to you, and to further discussion, to consider whether the use of force was justified in these cases.

Comments about the use of force and interventions generally

1. Intervene sooner rather than later. As we learned from yesterday mornings panel, violence truly does beget violence. The more deaths, rapes, destroyed houses; the more people separated from their possessions and loved ones – sometimes forever – the more bitterness, anger, hatred and violence. Once a war starts, it is hard to stop. It is not just that 4 years of war in Bosnia led to 200,000 deaths; the huge death toll contributed to it lasting 4 years;

2. Peacekeepers can deter by their presence. But they can only protect when they are sufficiently resourced to reach their objectives by force. This is the story of the UN Mission in Bosnia, and particularly the story of the safe areas. I was in Gorazde with the UN during part of the war. Gorazde, like Srebrenica, is a town in a valley encircled by mountains. Thousands of Bosnian Serb troops occupied these mountains. The 500 or so British and Ukrainian troops in Gorazde were completely surrounded, completely outgunned. They – and the 30,000 or so Bosnian Muslims living in Gorazde – were sitting ducks.

We were also in a sense hostages. Figuratively – in that we had to request permission to travel; supply was limited to what Serbs would allow us; and we had limited power and fuel. And sometimes literally – we all remember the picture of Canadian soldier Patrick Rechner chained to a pole in order to prevent the UN from launching further air strikes against Serb weapons caches.

Our presence clearly deterred attacks. Thousands of shells landed in Gorazde in early 1994, dozens were killed. After deployment of troops, less than 100 landed in town.

But we could not protect. We would have been overwhelmed in the event of a real attack. And with due respect to differing opinions expressed at this conference, I do not believe the Dutch soldiers in Srebrenica would have survived either had they chosen to fight. Sadly, I spoke to one of them not so long ago, and he said to me – “Many of us believe it would have been better to have fought and died.”

3. The object of force should be the protection of a population. A choice to intervene, even when done solely to protect civilians, almost always means (implicitly) politically supporting one or other side in a conflict. General McKenzie mentioned two examples in his talk. By bringing food into Sarajevo, Srebrenica and other safe areas, we were implicitly feeding the Bosnian army, frustrating the military objectives of the Bosnian Serbs and (some argued) prolonging the war. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo clearly was strategic goal of the KLA. Unlike some, I am not so worried about this. It is a reality, just as UNHCR accepts that in feeding a needy population some of the aid might fall into the wrong hands. In a war, you spend your time choosing between a series of poor options. These problems did not change the essential correctness of the action.

4. Force, or the threat of force, is always best used and most effective in support of a political agreement. Force can create a ceasefire. At the end, it is political agreement which ends war.

What does this all mean today, in the light of Iraq, Afghanistan and new terrorist threats?

Im not sure. But I can use that at as platform for an observation. Although I have not resided in Canada for over twelve years, I am still a proud Canadian. Even though I was in Afghanistan and Kosovo, I spend most of my last winter suffering through the hockey lockout like the rest of you.

I am worried that 9/11 and Iraq might have done two things

  • Made us too inward looking
  • Made us more skeptical of moral justifications for intervention. Especially by force.

While it is right to be critical, and careful, it is not the time for cynicism. Of course we should act in our national interest. But we should also act in our human interest. The world may be getting scarier, but it is getting smaller. Don’t believe anyone that tries to tell you that different cultures or religions make us different as human beings. They don’t. We are not so different.

I will give you an example. I was working in a polling station in Cambodia during its first elections after the Khmer Rouge period. Just before the station closed, a very old woman, I am sure over 80, came hobbling down the road. It turned out she had walked about 10 kilometers in the sun and heat and dust. She was alone. She said she had lost her two sons during the war. She said she didn’t really know what an election was. But that people had told her that the election might mean there wouldn’t be a war again. She said “I want to vote, because if I vote, than maybe other mothers won’t lose their sons”.

We asked our parents, or grandparents – how could we have let the Holocaust happen? Our children or grandchildren will ask us why we let Srebrenica happen, why we let Rwanda happen. Sadly, they may ask us how we let Darfur happen. They will be right to ask. How can it be in our interest not to stop these things. Or at least not to try. We must not be afraid, or self absorbed. We must do better.