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Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide

Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide

by Adam LeBor

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From the killing fields of Rwanda and Srebrenica a decade ago to those of Darfur today, the United Nations has repeatedly failed to confront genocide. This is evinced, author and journalist Adam LeBor maintains, in a May 1995 document from Yasushi Akashi, the most senior UN official in the field during the Yugoslav wars, in which he refused to authorize air strikes


From the killing fields of Rwanda and Srebrenica a decade ago to those of Darfur today, the United Nations has repeatedly failed to confront genocide. This is evinced, author and journalist Adam LeBor maintains, in a May 1995 document from Yasushi Akashi, the most senior UN official in the field during the Yugoslav wars, in which he refused to authorize air strikes against the Serbs for fear they would “weaken” Milosevic.  More recently, in 2003, urgent reports from UN officials in the Sudan detailing atrocities from Darfur were ignored for a year because they were politically inconvenient.
This book is the first to examine in detail the crucial role of the Secretariat, its relationship with the Security Council, and the failure of UN officials themselves to confront genocide. LeBor argues the UN must return to its founding principles, take a moral stand and set the agenda of the Security Council instead of merely following the lead of the great powers. LeBor draws on dozens of firsthand interviews with UN officials, current and former, and such international diplomats as Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Douglas Hurd, and David Owen.
This book will set the terms for discussion when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan steps down to make room for a new head of the world body, and political observers assess Annan’s legacy and look to the future of the world organization.

Editorial Reviews

Alan Furst

“When the nations of the world are prepared to do something about genocide, beyond decrying it, they will have the use of Adam LeBor’s scrupulous and unflinching history to remind them of the cost of inaction.”—Alan Furst
Diego Arria
"The author makes a very strong case—backed by research and investigation, and supported by quotations from key players in and around the United Nations."—Diego Arria, former Venezuelan ambassador to the UN

Peter Maass

“Adam LeBor has crafted a top-notch exposé of the failings of the United Nations in the age of genocide. It is painful to be reminded of the organization’s errors and lies about Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan, but this is a book we should all be thankful for. LeBor makes a furiously persuasive case that the United Nations must become a force against genocide rather than a cover for its execution.”—Peter Maass, author of Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War

Margaret Macmillan

“A timely, important book about the way in which the UN has allowed itself to drift ineffectually in confronting the realities of genocide. I wish policy makers world-wide would read LeBor's trenchant analysis of where the international order has gone wrong.”—Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

Roy Gutman

“LeBor's heartfelt appeal for UN reform points the finger at official Washington, which too often withholds support for the institution and instead panders to radical rightists seeking to destroy it.”—Roy Gutman, Foreign Editor at Newsday and author of A Witness to Genocide
Journal of Genocide Research - Ernesto Verdeja

"Complicity with Evil is a highly readable discussion of the UN's response to genocide. . . . It is an excellent contribution to popular accounts of international inaction in the face of genocide, and it deserves a wide readership."—Ernesto Verdeja, Journal of Genocide Research

Product Details

Yale University Press
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Edition description:
New Edition
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5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

"Complicity with Evil"

The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide
By Adam LeBor

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Adam LeBor
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11171-2

Chapter One

A Safe Area

The main demand is for the United Nations to be impartial and objective. -Slobodan Milosevic', Serbian president, 1995

The video begins with an Orthodox priest blessing the Serb paramilitaries before they go forth. They stand in a row, AK-47 assault rifles in their hands, red berets atop their shaved heads. Flanked by two giant black flags, the priest brushes the soldiers' heads with a handful of greenery as they file past. The date stamp shows that it is 7:30 P.M., 25 June 1995, a few days before the Serbs' final attack on Srebrenica.

The recording then cuts to a road in eastern Bosnia. It is a warm, sunny day, some time after the capture of the town. The soldiers, members of a unit called the Scorpions, are standing around a green army truck. The prisoners scramble out, hands tied behind their backs. They are Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) civilians. Their faces are gaunt and fearful, their clothes dirty and ragged. One is bleeding heavily from his face. The Serbs sneer and mock, ordering the prisoners to lie in the grass, close to eachother. One, Azmir Alispahic, is sixteen years old, another, Safet Fejzic, seventeen. Azmir wanted to be a doctor. He fled Srebrenica on 11 July, the day the town fell, returning briefly to kiss his mother good-bye, before trying to flee north to the city of Tuzla. The boys and men wriggle closer to one another. One man's feet are bare and move from side to side, pale flashes in the dirt.

The Scorpions smoke, chat, and joke. They are completely at ease. And do not mind being recorded, for they believe they are far beyond the reach of any law, with the absolute power of life and death. There is no reason for them to think otherwise. Until recently the prisoners lived in Srebrenica, a United Nations safe area, protected by Dutch peacekeepers. More Serb soldiers appear, and they mingle and talk for a while. They order the prisoners to march around a bend in the road, and to walk off the road into the grass. Azmir, Safet, and the others obey, their heads bowed. The Serbs order them to line up and walk forward, one by one. The first prisoner shuffles ahead. One of the Scorpions shoulders his weapon, peers down its sight, and takes aim at the prisoner's back.

The United Nations' road to Srebrenica begins in the summer of 1991 and the start of the Yugoslav wars. The conflicts were portrayed as impossibly complicated, rooted in arcane "ancient ethnic hatreds" reaching back to the clash of swords on medieval battlefields. The subtext was that nothing could be done to stop the carnage. But there was nothing mysterious about the Serb onslaughts on Croatia and Bosnia. They were carefully planned, and meticulously realized. In many ways, such as the role of Serbia's broadcast media in preparing for war, the secret service's autonomous state-within-a-state, and the sophisticated international disinformation campaign against Croatia and Bosnia, they were very modern conflicts, fought in the most advanced country in eastern Europe.

As communism collapsed, Yugoslavia's neighbors transformed into democracies and began the long haul toward membership in the European Union and NATO. Like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, too, could have dissolved peacefully-into its constituent republics of Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Montenegro. But war was a deliberate choice for the Serbian ruling elite, to maintain its political power and economic privileges. The dark genius of President Slobodan Milosevic was to unite disparate interest groups as the old certainties crumbled. Nationalist academicians found common cause with army generals to resurrect ancient irredentist fantasies. Corrupt local potentates allied with the secret service to protect their business empires. More specifically, the Vojna Linija, or Military Line faction in the Yugoslav army (JNA), delineated the borders of Greater Serbia and annexed the areas in Croatia and Bosnia where Serbs lived. And if some in the JNA were uncertain about firing heavy artillery on their fellow citizens, the doubters' ranks would be filled by the paramilitaries, criminals released from prison, armed and funded by the secret service, free to rape and murder.

The fighting began in June, after Croatia and Slovenia declared independence. After a few days' skirmishing, the JNA pulled out of Slovenia. But Croatia, home to 650,000 Serbs, was a different matter. By winter 1991, with the help of the JNA, rebel Serbs had captured about a third of the country, which they renamed the Republic of Serb Krajina (RSK). The RSK's leader was a sinister, baby-faced dentist named Milan Babic. His forces had committed widespread war crimes, including mass murder and ethnic cleansing. The United Nations considered Babic a serious negotiating partner. Warlords who should have been arrested for war crimes-and who later were-were treated as Balkan statesmen, a pattern that would continue through both the Croatian and Bosnian wars. Among the UN's interlocutors was the British diplomat Sir Marrack Goulding, head of peacekeeping. He recalls in his memoirs: "Babic was a major thorn in our flesh but I liked him and admired the power of his intellect and his fearless defence of what he saw as his people's interests." Babic's "fearless defence" of his people's interests brought them, and him, nothing but misery. Babic committed suicide in March 2006 in his cell at the UN Detention Centre in The Hague, sentenced to thirteen years in prison for crimes against humanity.

After six months of fighting, under severe pressure from Germany, the European Community (EC) agreed to recognize Croatia on 15 January 1992. This left Bosnia with two choices: declare independence or remain in a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. The Bosnians asked the United Nations for help. Shashi Tharoor, Marrack Goulding's bright young special assistant, and Herb Okun, an American diplomat, met Vice President Ejup Ganic in Belgrade. Ganic said that the EC had given Bosnia a week to apply for recognition as an independent state, but to do so without the consent of all three communities, Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, would violate its own constitution. War would break out. But, he told Tharoor, "the train is about to leave the station, and if we don't take a ticket we will miss it."

Ganic asked for ten thousand peacekeepers. Tharoor said his delegation would convey his request to the Security Council, but he thought it unlikely that the Council would agree. Tharoor recalls: This was the level of expectation from the Bosnians based on the pursuance rather fecklessly of a European decision that had not been formed in the crucible of the United Nations and had not been discussed with the other members. It was unthinkable that a Security Council with India and China on it would send troops to a sovereign member state of the United Nations to help a part of that state secede. It was impossible. We said that we understood his dilemma, but if the Europeans are pushing you into a corner, have them send you ten thousand troops. But the Europeans weren't geared up for that.

Tharoor had a point. Germany's insistence on rapid diplomatic recognition of Croatia, and its failure to understand the consequences for Bosnia, caused widespread alarm among the Secretariat. General Secretary Javier Pérez de Cuellar, a Peruvian diplomat who was coming to the end of his second term, warned Germany that recognizing Croatia would, by forcing Bosnia to decide on independence, spread the war. But it was the United Nations, not the EC, that had a peacekeeping department, with troops deployed across the world. And it was the United Nations, not the EC, that had the moral authority to call for emergency action to prevent a conflict of which it had clearly been forewarned. "When the war started in Croatia, Hungary and Austria both warned the Security Council that the very moment this spills over into Bosnia, it will be hell," recalls André Erdos, Hungary's ambassador to the United Nations, who sat on the Security Council from 1992 to 1993. "We knew the conditions in Bosnia, we understood Bosnia because of our history. But some others did not think like this." On 6 April the EC recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Serbs commenced their dismemberment of the country. Bosnia joined the United Nations the following month, theoretically protected by article 2 of chapter I of the UN Charter, enshrining member states' territorial integrity, and article 51 of chapter VII, guaranteeing the right of self-defense. The United Nations itself would ensure that this did not happen.

Up in his office on the thirty-eighth floor of the United Nations Secretariat building, with its panoramic view overlooking the East River, Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali seemed little interested in Bosnia. A francophone Egyptian Christian, Boutros-Ghali had succeeded Pérez de Cuellar in January 1992. The sixth secretary general famously dismissed the Bosnian conflict as "a rich people's war." His critics argued that he blended Gallic pomposity with a secretive authoritarianism. He certainly resented the influence and power of the United States within the United Nations. "Boutros-Ghali was an old-style diplomat of the Sorbonne school," says James Bone of the Times of London, a veteran UN correspondent. "He resented all the attention that was given to the Balkans, which he thought came at the expense of conflicts in Somalia and elsewhere that were being ignored. I think he was wrong, because rich people's wars are much more dangerous than poor people's wars, and he never really understood that." Boutros-Ghali regarded himself as one of the world's diplomatic elite, licensed to solve all the world's problems, says a United States diplomat then posted to the United Nations. "Boutros-Ghali saw himself as the commissar of the world. He never wanted the United Nations to be involved in Bosnia. He assumed, correctly, that Bosnia would chew up the United Nations and destroy his term as secretary general. But instead of being robust, he went to the opposite extreme."

Boutros-Ghali did not find life in the war zone to his taste. On 31 December 1992 he visited Sarajevo, for six hours. "You have a situation which is better than ten other places all over the world. I can give you a list of ten places where you have more problems than Sarajevo," he proclaimed. His audience was so shocked that nobody thought to ask him to list the ten. The Sarajevo airport seemed to have a peculiar effect on international diplomats. That same month David Owen, the EC negotiator on Yugoslavia, proclaimed there: "Don't, don't, don't live under this dream that the west is going to come and sort this problem out. Don't dream dreams." The Bosniaks saw this as an invitation to surrender, but in a way, Owen's brutal honesty was accurate. In New York, Bosnia's defenders struggled even to make their voices heard. "The Security Council is a non-democratic body. You have first-class and second-class members. If one of the P5 coughed, the Secretariat went into action. But the ten nonpermanent members were second-class citizens," recalls André Erdos. "You can be qualified, skilled, with expert command of an issue, an informed, eloquent speaker. But if you are a nonpermanent member, it was hard to attract attention. You had to make serious extra efforts to make yourself heard." Erdos and his colleagues perpetually struggled just to find out what was happening on the ground in Bosnia. They complained repeatedly to the Secretariat, to no avail, that information was circulated late, or not at all, and that Secretariat reports were incomplete, a pattern that later repeated itself with respect to Rwanda.

The Security Council chamber is the crucible of the United Nations. The ambassadors of the P5 and the ten nonpermanent members sit around a large horseshoe-shaped table, flanked by their aides. One wall is covered by a giant peace mural, a gift from Norway, showing a phoenix rising from its ashes, symbolizing the world being rebuilt after 1945. Stepped rows of chairs stretch back to the rear of the chamber, while interpreters look down from behind their high windows. The floor is covered with light brown carpet, the walls lined with darker brown wallpaper. The resemblance to a large municipal theater is quite apt: most of the dramas that play out here have been carefully scripted by the P5. By the time Erdos and the other nonpermanent members arrived, everything had been decided behind the scenes. "The P5 or the P3 had discussions among themselves, agreed on a text and presented it to a meeting, saying take it or leave it. It was very difficult to change or modify it. The whole operation of the United Nations was conducted in this spirit; hence the inability to do anything."

Erdos was horrified at how poorly informed the P5 were. "The whole atmosphere around Bosnia was very bizarre. I was flabbergasted by the ignorance of my colleagues about the historical and geographical realities on the ground. European ambassadors were just drifting along, not analyzing and wishing to know what was happening in the former Yugoslavia. One P5 ambassador told me Bosnia-Herzegovina was a 'Titoist invention.' This idea came from Slobodan Milosevic, that Bosnia was an artificial construct." So Erdos brought a 1911 edition of the Revai Lexicon, a famous Hungarian encyclopedia, to the Council chamber. "I took Volume B of the Lexicon with me to the next meeting. There was a whole section on Bosnia, fourteen pages and a two-page colored map, almost identical to the borders of today. I showed my colleague, and said, 'Please look at this, your "Titoist invention."' This was a very visual rebuff to some of the foolish ideas that were being spread around. He did take notice." But not enough to alter his country's policies.

The contrast was sharpest with Kuwait, swiftly liberated after it was attacked by Iraq. Resolution 678, passed in November 1990, called for "all necessary means"-including military intervention-to be used to force Iraq to withdraw if Saddam Hussein did not pull back by 15 January 1991. A "coalition of the willing" was formed under US leadership, the land war began on 23 February, and four days later Kuwait was liberated. But there was no oil in Bosnia. Secretary of State James Baker summed up the US position: "We do not have a dog in that fight"-words that, ten years later, came back to haunt him. Instead, the United Nations imposed sanctions, banning trade with Serbia and Montenegro, as well as sporting, scientific, air, and maritime links. But the Security Council balked at military intervention, arguing that "in the very complex context of events in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia all parties bear some responsibility for the situation," although it was hard to see how the civilians targeted by Serb snipers bore "some responsibility" for their situation. There were no robust enforcement mechanisms to ensure that the sanctions bit. Serbia quickly set up front companies in Greece, Russia, and Cyprus, and the flow of oil into the country barely slowed.

The Security Council then asked the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to examine whether peace-keeping would be possible in Bosnia, drawing on Croatia, where UNPROFOR, the UN protection force, was deployed. But UNPROFOR could barely protect itself. Night after night, the few remaining elderly Croats in Serb-occupied areas were murdered. Goulding and Tharoor warned after a trip to the conflict zone in January 1992 that peacekeeping would not work in Bosnia. There was no consent for peacekeepers, no cease-fire, no suitable environment for peacekeepers to operate in, and no concept of operations acceptable to all the parties. Despite these constraints, UNPROFOR provided a useful fig leaf for the P5, and in June its mandate was enlarged to cover Bosnia-specifically, to keep the Sarajevo airport open.


Excerpted from "Complicity with Evil" by Adam LeBor Copyright © 2006 by Adam LeBor. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Adam LeBor is the Central Europe Correspondent for the Times, covering the former Yugoslavia  and the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

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