15 January 2018 marked 20 years since the United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia, Baranya, and Western Sirmium (UNTAES) left the region. They had started their work in January 1996. I was in the region for the entire period of their existence. The substance of this blog is my memories and impressions of the period. It would take a book, which we are planning to write at some point, to give a more complete analysis of the successes and failures of that mission.
First, a few general comments. As virtually all interventions by inter-governmental organizations and large non-governmental organizations, the goals of UNTAES were more political than human. The bureaucracy was enormous. There was a huge gap between the locals and the foreigners. Most of the foreigners – with a few notable exceptions – had little understanding of the region or of what they were supposed to be doing, and even of their own fields of supposed expertise. There was little empathy among most of them, and they frequently were insensitive to local needs and desires. There sometimes – the degree must be determined later – was abuse of locals. There were rivalries between organizations. There was little regard for smaller local and foreign non-governmental organizations. There were, however, a number of notable exceptions to these patterns, people who truly cared. They were outnumbered and, for the most part, they were thwarted in their efforts to make something of the mission. Several left in the middle of it.
There also is a question of the legacy now of UNTAES and that of the organization that followed it as the lead inter-governmental organization, that is, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the lessons learned. In 2010, the CWWPP wrote a “lessons learned” document, which is available on our website, which addresses some of this. Clearly, there are many gaps that are being repeated in other places, according to our observations and private conversations.
UNTAES was an absolute dictatorship. Whatever they, and ultimately Gen. Jacques Klein and William Walker, its leaders, said was law. By contrast, the OSCE mission that followed was a monitoring mission, that is, it was advisory to the Croatian government, and could only make its will felt through political means. What was significant was that the Croatians wanted to enter the European Union, and thus there was at least minimal compliance with what both said.
A tactic that was used by both sides, unfortunately, was delay. The idea was to say something like, “Oh of course we’ll do this but, you know, there is this or that administrative or practical barrier.”. This type of thing was constant.
What was striking was the lack of real planning for the mission. What also was striking was the lack of real expertise in areas that should have been there. As one example, there was no person in the mission responsible for reconciliation until its last few months. Further, the foreign personnel, for the most part, seemed to be more interested in themselves than in doing things for others. The salaries that they received were more than ten times what locals received. They permitted themselves great behavioral excesses. For someone like me, looking from the outside and trying to accomplish something, it looked crass and horrible and was offensive.
There also was little control of the Croatian officials and politicians, who had more or less free reign.
One typical example was the elections held in the spring of 1997. I was in contact with the election monitors, mostly informally, supervising them psychologically. I also met some of the UNTAES officials. In brief, while the top people declared the elections to be free and fair, the consensus on the ground was that they were at very least highly chaotic and at worst abusive and were designed to justify the Croatian takeover of the region. This was the consensus of the NGOs with whom I associated.
No UNTAES staff received psychological assistance or supervision, at least as far I am aware, although it may have been done privately. I did it for a small number of people.
Further, UNTAES had no feeling for the psychological state of what was, and still is, a highly traumatized population.
What UNTAES did reasonably successfully was to get rid of the big guns. I emphasize the word “big”. People kept small, and not so small, arms under their beds, and still do. I once disarmed one man who was living with quite a number of other people. While there were buy-back programs, they were ineffective. Those weapons still exist. There were no real attempts at disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, and reconciliation (DDRR), and I doubt that the term was even recognized. The other possible positive consequence was that it may have prevented the Croatians from launching another operation such as Storm to “recapture” eastern Slavonia and Baranya. It is a question – a very real one – whether the international community would have intervened under such circumstances.
Furthermore, there was a great deal of antagonism and rivalry between organizations. UNHCR and UNTAES both wanted to be the lead agency. Despite there being coordination meetings, little was coordinated. The same was true of the OSCE period.
I characterize the UNTAES period as a failure, with the exception of the removal of the big guns. It also may have prevented the Croatian government from coming into the region, literally with all guns blazing. The consequences for the future of the region were poor. Now, 20 years later, the region still is characterized by strong ethnic tensions and lack of integration and reconciliation of the various ethnicities. Schools, restaurants, and social activities still are segregated. Still, people are psychologically traumatized, and have virtually nowhere to obtain meaningful assistance. There is a great deal of trans-generational transmission of psychological trauma and negative narratives. The psychological medical policy in the area is one of giving drugs. The few organizations that remain have no real influence, try as they may. I include us in that.
Unfortunately, this is a picture that is repeated in region after region.
UNTAES, at one point, was described as the most successful UN mission in history. Is that simply irony or is there a darker picture?