UN-based journalist Steven Edwards: The UN has many regrets, and Syria is already another

When United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon visits Bosnia this week, the specter of the UN’s 1995 failure in Srebrenica will rear up not only for the world body, but also for the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan.

Ban told a Bosnian newspaper on Monday that UN peacekeepers “were not capable of helping people there in times when they needed that help.” Annan ­­– Ban's predecessor as UN Secretary General – headed UN peacekeeping operations when units of the Bosnian Serb army massacred some 8,000 Muslim men and boys ostensibly protected in a UN “safe” area.

Annan had held the same job during the 1994 Rwanda genocide, about which he eventually admitted he “could and should have done more to sound the alarm and rally support” as Hutu extremists killed up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus over 90 days.

Annan infamously ignored the Jan. 11, 1994 “genocide fax” sent by UN Force Commander Brig.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who warned three months before the slaughter began that a Tutsi massacre was possible.

As envoy to Syria since February, Annan arrived in Moscow on Monday as he tries to save Syrians from ongoing slaughter by the Russian-supported Assad regime. He seeks united Security Council action, which the United States, France, Britain, Germany and Portugal say should mean support for their draft resolution threatening Syria with legally enforceable sanctions.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave Annan Moscow’s response before the two even met: He accused the West of trying to “blackmail” Russia by threatening to send home the 300 UN monitors unless the sanctions resolution is passed.

The Russians seek a resolution free of the UN Charter’s Chapter 7 enforcement provisions, which can open the door to the use of military force. But while there is no evidence the West has any appetite for military intervention, the Western powers say tying the resolution to Chapter 7 remains necessary to make the sanctions bite.

Annan fared no better with the Russians on Tuesday, emerging from a meeting with President Vladimir Putin to say that all concerned will “hopefully find language that will pull everybody together.”

That sounds suspiciously like Annan is poised to seek a Western compromise ahead of a vote on the draft resolution that could come as early as Wednesday.

The Obama administration’s decision to outsource much of the Syria question to Annan could well end up allowing history to repeat itself by facilitating even greater horrors than have occurred so far in Syria. There should be no compromise.

As for Ban and Annan, what will they have to say in years to come after the UN issues the inevitable “lessons learned” report on the eventual result of this tortuous effort?

Successive tragedies appear to teach the UN little, but there is always plenty of regret and “wishing one had done more” on the part of UN leaders. Get ready for more of that when Ban arrives in Bosnia on Thursday. The words he’ll use will almost certainly be applicable years hence when some future secretary general expresses regret over the (currently unfolding) UN failure in Syria.

Steven Edwards is a UN-based journalist focused on international issues