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Critical of the risks: research into the experiences of military observers

For his PhD, historian and army major Dion Landstra researched the effectiveness of observers in peace operations in the Balkans between 1991 and 1995. What risks are acceptable for bringing about and maintaining peace? Landstra will defend his PhD on 28 September.

Landstra thinks politicians should be able to look critically at the risks faced by military observers. His research shows that certain risks that were accepted at a higher strategic or operational level could actually have been avoided. Risks were taken therefore that were not acceptable to the observers themselves. ‘The UN and the Dutch government dropped the ball. They downplayed and underestimated certain risks.’

Little written about observers

In his literature research Landstra discovered that little had been written about the military observers who served in the war in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. ‘That confirmed that I had a subject in mind that from an academic perspective was missing from Dutch historiography,’ says Landstra. ‘I started by doing exploratory archive research at the UN headquarters in New York and the European Commission in Brussels. The combination of interviews with veterans and the fantastic pieces I found in the archives yielded a lot of information.’

‘Interviewing those people was a real eye-opener. Each story is unique. And each time another piece of knowledge emerged that got me digging further in the archives to get to the bottom of things. That was really satisfying and fantastic to do.’ A public edition of his dissertation will also be published: Informatiemakelaar en schietschijf (Information Broker and Target).

Dion Landstra’s book ‘Informatiemakelaar en schietschijf’

Duties of a military observer

Between 1991 and 1995, over 400 Dutch officers served as observers. Unarmed, they lived and worked among the local population. They rented a house or lodged with people and paid rent. ‘The main duty of this observer is to observe and report on not only the military situation but also the political and economic situation in the country. They also mediate between warring parties and perform a liaison role.’ As they are such a specific group of military personnel, the unarmed observers also often function as humanitarian aid workers, for instance in cooperation with the Red Cross. ‘Because of their military expertise, as witnesses they are also subject-matter experts in places where other units, the press or NGOs often do not reach when war is raging. In short: an incredibly varied range of duties.’

Neutral yet involved

As an observer you are supposed to be neutral but the UN also expects you to be involved. That can be tricky at times. ‘Sometimes the monitors had built up an emotional connection or relationship with one of the warring parties because they had shared not only the good times but above all the bad times for months on end, but that’s not really allowed. These are ethical issues the monitors regularly wrestled with. Am I neutral in my mission or am I a good person? These reflections came up a lot in the study,’ says Landstra.

As well as struggling at times with their position in the new country, observers face many other risks in their job. These vary from mines and roadside bombs to targeted shelling, hijackings and robberies. In 1994 the UN peacekeeping force decided to use force to call violators of agreements to order and enforce peace. In response, UN personnel, including dozens of observers, were taken hostage three times. In spring 1995, the hostage-takers even used the observers as a human shield against air strikes. ‘That meant they were chained to potential targets such as bridges and hangers at airports. This left deep marks on these people and regularly caused long-term mental health problems.’

Recognition for veterans

Observers did not always receive enough mental health support from the Ministry of Defence either. ‘That realisation came too late,’ says Landstra. ‘Upon return, the unit had no idea what the observer had been through.’ The veterans Landstra spoke to are really pleased that a book is now being published about their experiences. They finally feel a bit of recognition.

On 18 October, the Ministry of Defence is holding a symposium and reunion at the Netherlands Veterans Institute in Doorn for observers deployed to the Balkans on behalf of the UN and the EC/EU between 1991 and 1995. All veterans present will receive a copy of Landstra’s book.

Text: Imme Visser

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