During the 1990's, the United Nations failed dismally in Bosnia and Kosovo. Most notably in Bosnia, UN troops stood by as Serbian forces occupied the UN-protected zone of Srebrenica and massacred some 8,000 Muslim men and boys. In Kosovo, it failed to stop a Serbian attempt to force almost 1 million ethnic Albanians out of the province. Only the willingness of the United States to convince NATO to use force for a humanitarian intervention prevented what would have been the worst case of mass deportation since World War II.
Recently, the international community and its institutions failed once again to address adequately the issues deriving from the break-up of Yugoslavia.
The first instance relates to Kosovo, which has been under a virtual UN protectorate since the NATO intervention that ousted Serbian forces from the province. The majority ethnic Albanian population wishes to achieve independence, while Serbia still insists that the province - 90% of whose population is Albanian - should remain part of Serbia. Last year, the UN Security Council appointed the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari to try to negotiate an agreed solution. Predictably, months of negotiations in Vienna produced no agreement: The Kosovars insisted on their right to independence and self-determination, while Serbia vowed never to give up its sovereignty over Kosovo.
FACED WITH these unbridgeable demands, Ahtisaari came up with what is the opposite of a Solomonic judgment. He proposed a kind of limited independence for Kosovo under international supervision, which would keep the province under indefinite outside tutelage, to insure the rights of the remaining Serbian minority - something which fell well short of the Kosovo Albanians' demands for outright independence. And by suggesting that Kosovo could become a member of international organizations, he frustrated Serbia's claim to maintain its sovereignty.
Good compromises give each side a bit of what they want. In this case, both sides were utterly frustrated. Further negotiations will take place, but it is obvious that at the end of the day, the UN will fail to come up with a solution acceptable to both sides.
The harsh reality in Kosovo is simple: Either it will become an independent state - or not. Ahtisaari's proposals are the worst of both worlds, and if implemented will leave both sides frustrated, angry and probably prone to violence. Once again, the UN showed the limits of its power and wisdom.
ON BOSNIA, what happened at the International Court in The Hague is yet another example of the hypocrisy of quasi-judicial organs affiliated with the UN - as well as a diplomatic whitewash.
The Bosnian government charged Serbia with responsibility for the crimes committed at Srebrenica, which it claimed amounted to genocide. After years of deliberations, the International Court ruled that: (a) yes, the crime of genocide did indeed take place at Srebrenica; but (b) no - because of the complex relationship between Serbia and the military forces of the Serbs in Bosnia - Serbia could not be found guilty of genocide, only of not preventing it.
In other words, genocide did take place, but no one was found responsible for committing it. Hundreds of pages of legalistic mumbo-jumbo cannot whitewash the utter moral turpitude of such a verdict.
It is bad enough that the UN forces were not able to prevent what is now officially termed as genocide in a UN-protected zone, yet the court at The Hague states that this was a crime without perpetrators.
Finding Serbia guilty of "not preventing the genocide" is absurd. Either it is guilty of genocide - or not. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to find the UN responsible for "not preventing genocide."
Incidentally, the role of the Dutch battalion at Srebrenica caused a soul-searching debate in The Netherlands, and culminated in the resignation of the government with far-reaching consequences for some of the officials and officers involved.
The responses to the International Court's verdict have been predictable. The families of the thousands of Muslim men and boys murdered in Srebrenica feel that they have been cheated out of even posthumous justice; and nationalists in Serbia construe the verdict to mean that Serbia is innocent. To the travesty of the UN not helping the beleaguered Muslims in their hour of need, the International Court now added the insult of not having the political and moral courage to decide who, after all, was responsible for the massacre of 8,000 civilians who mistakenly thought that they were under UN protection. The UN and its institutions were created after World War II with the hope that they would prevent the kind of atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Yet daily we witness how impotent the UN is in the face of the on-going genocide in Darfur.
The bad compromise suggested for Kosovo, and the scandalous verdict on Srebrenica, should give pause all those who speak of "international legitimacy" as if it were not only a lofty idea but a functioning reality. The UN is a wonderful idea gone terribly wrong, and when it is called to stop genocide and mass murder, it invariably fails - and then adds insult to injury.
The writer is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.