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On Neutrality in a War Zone

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2000-1

On Neutrality in a War Zone

Clay Foreman, MFT, CTS,  Instructor in Psychology & Criminology, Napa Valley College, 2277 Napa-Vallejo Highway, Napa, CA 94558.  Phone 7-1-707-254-8655  Email: cforeman@napanet.net

Keywords: neutrality, war zone, CIVPOL, peacekeeping

Clay Foreman

Napa Valley College
Napa, CA 94558


The practice of neutrality in the midst of war is inherently different from the neutral stance of a police officer during routine problems. When civilian police officers volunteer to work in a war zone, they find themselves in a starkly unfamiliar environment in which former police practices are inoperative. The officers must adapt their practices to war zone realities. One reality is that as representatives of international organizations, the United Nations police unit (CIVPOL) must remain neutral towards the warring factions. The adaptation of practices to these conditions is explored through the concept of neutrality as found in an actual episode within the context of the civil war in former Yugoslavia. The vehicle for understanding is a description of a funeral in 1993 by a CIVPOL officer during a conversation in former Yugoslavia.

The officer insisted the story was important to understanding the role and nature of the work of CIVPOL. That CIVPOL officer critiqued and validated the accuracy of the account and findings of this paper. The following analysis shows how neutrality was operationalized during intense negotiations, and how a successful encounter is dependent on an officer's apparent transparency and social-image. Interrogation of the description of the funeral provided insight into the practice of neutrality by peacekeepers in a war zone.

The goal is the analysis of subjective meaning inherent in a lived-experience (Ricoeur, 1974). Meaning is drawn from the content of the description by means of a dialectic questioning of aspects in the account to the speakers experience. As suggested by Gadamer (1990) subjective meaning is found in practices as well as in written texts. Similarly, Ricoeur (1986) discussed action as a form of acted narrative meaning. Thereby, this paper explores the practice of neutrality by CIVPOL officers.

On Neutrality in a War Zone

Usual Expectations

Police practices occur within a social fabric. Social structures in this fabric contain shared conventions and commonly understood goals. A human action has meaning and is interpreted within these intersubjective structures that contextually frame its occurrence. In day-to-day practices, social institutions often have seamless interaction. Although the structures of action may not be readily apparent, they are vital to the context of an action and can be understood through interrogation of the action.

An elderly person dies and loved ones come together for the funeral. As members of the same society, people understand the behavioral signs, social expectations and traffic rules that govern the progress of a funeral procession. The other drivers adjust to any temporary disruption by the funeral procession. Police become involved only when they believe the funeral might cause significant social disruption.

The death of an elderly person is an expected life event, with socially specified rituals for the funeral and burial. Seldom would police expect to be officially involved in a funeral. After a death, family members may be contentious about a variety of issues, but such squabbles rarely require police involvement. Police respond only when family problems become disruptive to the larger society. Otherwise, funerals proceed unaided. Because of their position in the social order, police have the authority and power to resolve problems. When they lack superior force for a situation, they rely on preparation, training and experience. Police power is realized through coordinated and practiced tactical responses to an emerging situation.

Standard procedures, professional jargon, and common history within an emergency service organization have been called the “operating context” (Paton, 1994). This operating context insulates emergency service personnel from the full psychological impact of encounters with critical incidents. Similarly, the operating context is a coping resource during extreme situations. Because of its insular quality, a breakdown in the operating context opens the emergency service personnel to distress. Paton (1994) found this to be the case with firefighters.

War Zone Power Structures

Officers with the local militia, as police are called in Eastern Europe, did not follow police practices, as they would have before this conflict. The militia officers were drawn from the groups holding power. In a given area, militia operated with the consent of local para-military groups. Similar to inner-city youth gangs, para-military groups controlled local areas with little formal relation to groups in other areas.

Neither para-military groups nor their leaders were concerned with ensuring social stability. Indeed, para-military leaders were often wanted for serious crimes in Western Europe. The former social structures were abrogated by the brutal conditions. The war zone had no overarching authority or social order. The militia did not fulfill the usual expectations of police organizations, and were ethnically biased in their actions. Conventions and expectations of stable society gave way to social disorder and ad hoc aggression.

The Concept of Neutrality

Since international conventions of the 17th century, claims of neutrality entail certain expectations (Bartlett, 1978) for both neutral parties and belligerents. Agents and citizens of neutral countries had freedom of movement as long as they did not enhance the military ability of one of the belligerent nations. By charter, the UN is neutral among nations. Founded in the aftermath of the Second World War, the UN has grown into “a prototype world society . . . [where] . . . individuals have equal standing with states” (Evans & Newnham, 1990, p. 162). Early UN missions extended conventions of neutrality to international observers in war zones. In accord with these conventions, CIVPOL officers maintained a neutral stance during the performance of their duties. Within the context of a highly interactive world, international organizations feel compelled to interfere with the actions of other states. The UN now intercedes to stop human rights abuse.

United Nations Protection Forces

Agreements between the UN and the warring parties allowed UNPROFOR to establish an international mission in the contested areas of former Yugoslavia. UNPROFOR designated regions of operation as Sector South, Sector East, Sector West and Bosnia/Herzegovina. The UN mission was carried out by three principle components: the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), military contingents and CIVPOL. UNHCR and CIVPOL were not to carry weapons. Except for those employed by the UN, local people could not be transported in UN vehicles. The UN components were expected to remain neutral to the conflict and not give material aid to any antagonist.

At periodic roadblocks, local para-military forces inspected UN vehicles. Based on country of origin, CIVPOL officers received differential treatment. In Sector South, local Serbs showed immense disdain for French personnel. French drivers were excessively delayed at roadblocks. In part, this disrespect derived from France's historical alignment with Croatia, and from recent incidents involving French personnel in UNPROFOR. A few weeks before this conversation, the Croatian Army launched an attack through the area controlled by the French Battalion (FrenchBat) in Sector South. This attack killed 35 Serbian people.

The local population blamed the French for collusion by either assisting or, at the very least, allowing the Croatian Army to move through FrenchBat controlled territory. During a Serbian counterattack, three French soldiers at a UN outpost were killed without fighting back. By actions and comments, Serbs made clear that they considered French soldiers to be cowards. This sentiment clearly ignored the strict UN prohibition against troops engaging in combat. The French soldiers died because they adhered to the UN definition of neutrality.

Serbs experienced no negative consequences for their actions towards the French or other groups. Personnel from African and Moslem countries were treated disrespectfully by local people. Local discrimination towards country-of-origin fractured any opportunity for unified UN policies. The lack of a unified Serbian organization further confounded conflict negotiation across the UNPROFOR region. The UN non-engagement policy and absence of Serbian leadership afforded impunity to violent para-military groups. In this situation, local groups acted arbitrarily towards the UN. Some of these groups benefited from the continued war zone conditions and the UN policy was based on concern that a provoked UN response could result in a pullout from the region.

CIVPOL Operations

As volunteers from over 30 different countries, CIVPOL officers worked in multi-national units, patrolling in four-wheel drive passenger jeeps. These unprotected UN vehicles were subject to detainment and attack by hostile gangs. Officers investigated and reported incidents of suspected human rights abuse, monitored local living conditions and assessed the needs of civilian residents for food, clothing and shelter. CIVPOL was also charged with monitoring the local police and the justice system. These duties required officers to interact with the militia, maintain liaison with para-military groups, and interview area residents.

Drawn from local communities, UN staff members spied for the warring parties. Before written reports reached headquarters in Zagreb, local para-military groups criticized the findings. Within the Balkan context, CIVPOL officers expected interpersonal duplicity. Neither familiarity with local belligerents nor kindness towards local people protected officers from personal violations.

The Funeral for A Yugoslavian Matriarch

An excellent example of the problems encountered by CIVPOL was a funeral for an elderly Serbian widow. Many years earlier, the woman had married a Croatian widower with two small children. The couple had two of their own children and raised all four children in a Croatian village. When the local CIVPOL office learned of this funeral, the potential for conflict was recognized and two officers with an interpreter were dispatched. One officer was Irish and the other Canadian. Enroute to the village the CIVPOL officers requested and received escort from the Czech Army Battalion, the UN military command for the area.

The two escorting armored personnel carriers waited, while the unarmed CIVPOL officers entered the village. The situation was tense and on the verge of violence. The Serbian relatives demanded the women's burial in the village of origin, while the sons and the husband's relatives wanted burial at the Croatian village. A unit of the Serbian Territorial Defense Force (TDF) was present in support of the Serbian relatives.

Family arguments about funerals were outside the usual CIVPOL mission and, in any other setting, would not usually involve police. Negotiations dragged out the entire day. Repeatedly, the situation threatened to collapse into violence, and the officers could not withdraw from the negotiations. In this case, the couple had not married, so she remained member of her Serbian family of origin and had continued to practice the orthodox faith. The resolution focused on traditional customs in which the woman's rights were subservient to the male head of her family. Both factions came to agree that by her own actions she had remained Serbian, they agreed to burial in the Serbian village.

Neither side of the family would agree to the makeshift casket being transported by other side. CIVPOL resolved this obstacle by placing the casket in the UN jeep and lead the procession around the mountain to the Serbian village. After the burial, the Serbs invited the Croats to their compound for a traditional feast. At that point, CIVPOL sent the Serbs home, and escorted the Croats back to their village.

The Funeral As Situated In The Greater Conflict

Initial discussion revealed the family was a blend of Serbian and Croatian factions inclined to violently settle their dispute. The CIVPOL office pursued discussions with hopes of an informal funeral with limited participation by extended family. However the family would settle for nothing less than a full traditional funeral. So, the officers sought to facilitate a peaceful outcome. Thus, the funeral for an old woman provided an opportunity to understand motives, expectations and practices of neutrality.

Baptized an Orthodox Christian, the Serbian woman had married a Croat, which was common in former Yugoslavia. Before the conflict, one-third of Yugoslavian marriages crossed ethnic boundaries without problems as local people claimed to have been unconcerned with each other's ethnicity. This previous gentility was a casualty of the current conflict, and violence was always likely at any meeting of Serbs and Croats.

Both sides of the large extended family had been well respected in the community. Still in the area, each side lived in fortified compounds. The husband died sometime before the conflict and was buried in the Serbian Village. The couple had been loved and respected by their large family. In previous times, the family would have come together for her funeral. Now, the family could not agree on arrangements for a safe funeral. The Serbian members wanted both an Orthodox Christian funeral and burial. Other members wanted to bury the woman with her husband. The family could not agree on the burial site.

CIVPOL encouraged the family to work within the local social structure. However, Croatian family members did not trust the militia, which consisted of Serbs. Militia protection required a significant bribe, which was a serious problem in that financially difficult time. Even a bribe would not guarantee safety for the Croats. Officers encouraged the family to maintain an active dialogue about the funeral.

Uncertain the funeral should involve CIVPOL; the officers met separately with family representatives, who shared a desire for a proper farewell. All parties were apprehensive about bringing warring factions together. If either side moved independently to bury her, the other side would attack, so negotiations stalled. Due to inadequate electricity for refrigeration, the body needed a timely burial. The cemetery issue remained divisive, and the funeral would be held with or without a truce. CIVPOL met separately with both factions, but could not stop the funeral. The expectation of a socially proper burial was the only identified common interest.

The funeral presented an unusual situation for CIVPOL officers. Such a situation was not likely to occur in their home countries. In a similar situation, religious authorities might help resolve the conflict. This was not the case in former Yugoslavia, where divisions followed religious lines. Also enmeshed in the ethnic conflict, local Catholic and Orthodox priests had no power to facilitate an agreement. So the usual religious institutions were not helpful.

At one point, CIVPOL learned of an attempt by one side to move the body. At first this seemed a reasonable solution; the body could disappear and that would be it. However, after considering this possibility. Officers decided that a secret burial would be problematic. The “wronged” side would have a legitimate complaint and might well retaliate. Likely to revel in their victory, the “body-nappers” would irritate the other side and the conflict would escalate into violence. Apprehensively, CIVPOL entered the negotiations, mindful that violence could erupt outside their control.

The Emerging Role for CIVPOL

CIVPOL could not guarantee safety for either group. Any movement in the area was viewed as opportunity for intelligence gathering. Both sides were unwilling to allow the other group to look around inside their compound, and CIVPOL could not secure any local site or route, so any meeting was vulnerable to attack. Because the factions could not be brought together safely, CIVPOL officers shuttled between the groups. In typical situations, police place themselves between two parties during interrogation of suspects and during hostage negotiations. This affords police the position from which to monitor the situation and to exert their power. In the case of the funeral, CIVPOL was powerless to force a resolution and could only monitor the potential for danger.

In general when visiting compounds, officers followed exact directions. Until invited to participate, they remained with their vehicles. Still, the officers could not afford to appear weak or uncertain, because residents disrespected weakness in mentioned above about the French. In 1938, West (1941) noted a similar disrespect by Serbs for perceived weakness in other people. Despite their vulnerability, CIVPOL officers maintained a confident appearance through sharp and direct comments in an effort to engender respect.

Perception management was vital to the projection of a strong image. Officers needed to be viewed as strong and confident, but yet non-threatening. So with apparent confidence, officers constantly scanned their surroundings for potential danger. However, scanning the environment could be interpreted as attempts to gather strategic intelligence. Therefore, the motives for this potentially suspicious behavior needed to be apparent to the local people, who often tried to discern underlying motives in others. CIVPOL officers and local people did not share a common language, so verbal explanations were suspect. Officers were obvious and deliberate in their actions, so that the motives for their behavior appeared clear, that is, actions appeared transparent.

During the funeral discussions, the factions were highly suspicious of one another, and equally distrustful of CIVPOL. Family members expressed suspicions that CIVPOL officers might pass intelligence, or even help set a trap. Neither side accepted as altruistic the motives of CIVPOL officers. Interpersonal distrust heightened tension whenever antagonists met anyone outside their immediate comrades-in-arms.

Frequently, local UN staff asked officers their feelings about local groups. Occasionally, these staff members asked this author about the attitudes of officers towards the local situation. People working in the same office could not discern an officer's true feelings. This is a testament to the ability of officers to shield their inner feelings while appearing transparent, because during my consultation officers often revealed strong feelings about the local situation. Thus, individual UN officers successfully presented a neutral image.

National origin was often used to interpret the “true” allegiance of an officer. Nationalities were stereotyped in various ways. The antagonists regarded officers as having personal motives and national interests. Individual officers had to establish their own neutrality to the issues at hand. These dynamics were present in the funeral negotiations, and officers assumed a disinterested third-party stance.

Negotiation Positions

As negotiators, officers channeled the family disagreement to the issues of proper burial and a safe funeral. After clarifying the limits of discussion, they pressed the participants to stay within the stated positions and focused on the burial. As a Serb, the woman should have been buried in the Orthodox cemetery, but her Croatian husband was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery. She could have been buried with her husband at the village where her children lived. However, the Serbian side rejected burial at the Croatian village.

Standard strategies for conflict resolution attempt to identify and expand shared interests (Wedge, 1995) into a satisfactory resolution. In this case, general fondness for the old woman gave the negotiators leverage, to maintain the focus on the mutual respect for the matriarch. CIVPOL established their power by acting to define and limit the discussion. Progressively, both sides relinquished power to the negotiators.

In the absence of common interest, police officers may have to create one by independently exerting pressure. For example, antagonists will usually agree that no one wants to go to jail and accept a less disagreeable alternative solution. Rather than having the usual strength a police force, CIVPOL officers remained concerned with their own safety. The expectation was for any violence to be initially directed at the other side. Then the CIVPOL officers could quickly withdraw to the protection of the twelve Czech Battalion personnel. The foresight of requesting Czech Battalion support provided a modicum of strength for the otherwise unarmed CIVPOL officers, and balanced the presence of the Serbian militia. However, any intervention would have been limited to only extricating UN personnel. With regards to the funeral, CIVPOL would have exercised no force. During the funeral negotiations, the officers maintained a neutral stance between the family factions.

The woman had neither renounced Orthodox Christianity nor embraced the Roman Catholic faith. Concern shifted to appeasing the Catholic family members. The negotiators assumed greater control over the discussions. Her Orthodox Christian baptism defined her religion. Both sides of the family accepted the officers' suggestion that a person demonstrated faith through participation in religious sacraments, rituals and gestures; baptism was a statement to God. The officers closed the discussion when both sides realized that by sacrament the woman remained Orthodox Christian. In order for her children to participate, the funeral would be in their Roman Catholic faith.

Although diminishing their victory, the Serbian faction agreed to a funeral service at the Roman Catholic Church. From their strategic use of neutrality, the officers directed an agreement that bound both sides. Serbian and Croatian social identities were extremely rigid during the conflict. Expressions of religious faith indicated strong belief and adherence to church dogma.

Rather than compromising group identity, both sides accepted the negotiated plan for the Roman Catholic funeral and Orthodox Christian burial. If the officers had leaned towards either side, the offended group might have disengaged. The officers' position of neutrality pulled both sides towards a neutral and livable resolution. During the negotiations, each side experienced dissonant dogma, that is, intractable hostility towards one another and intractable articles of faith. The result was ambiguous enough to allow both sides some victory without violating their common customs and separate faiths.

Involvement of the Greater Community

With the decision made to bury the woman in the Orthodox cemetery. CIVPOL contacted the local militia. This move was a gesture of respect to the militia's authority. The chief of the militia supported the funeral - without Croatian involvement. The woman was a Serb, and therefore, her burial should not have been a Croatian concern. The chief would not guarantee the safety of Croats, who, he felt, would use the funeral to cause trouble. In effect, the chief asserted his authority and opted out of involvement in the funeral. He said the funeral was an insignificant matter, because only Croats were in danger. The chief maintained his authoritative image through his expressed disinterest.

The Burial

After the burial, the Serbian faction invited everyone to a traditional feast and celebration. CIVPOL intervened insisting all parties return to their own areas. Relieved all had gone as planned, the officers saw this “hospitality” as an opportunistic change to the negotiated plans. A late night “celebration” could be an ambush in the Serb controlled compound. The last act of CIVPOL authority was to send everyone home.



Usually occurrences are interpreted within existing cognitive schema and acted upon through standard practices. Commonly occurring events, such as funerals, may attract minimal conscious consideration for a police officer. In the context of a war zone, events are embedded in uncommon expectations, and interpretations must continually consider dynamics of the immediate situation. Otherwise, events common at home can become unexpectedly problematic in a war zone.

The old woman died of natural causes and the death of an old person is usually not contentious. Concern developed when Serbian and Croatian members of the family expected to participate in the funeral and could not agree on the burial place. At home, an officer could encounter situations similar to the funeral described above. If an event is expected to bring together two rival groups, police may broker a truce to reduce likelihood of trouble. The CIVPOL brokered plan had to be swiftly carried out before either side broke the truce.

The officers were primarily concerned with the lack of power to enforce a peaceful resolution of the funeral. The situation was different than that expected on home, where police are empowered by their society. This situation was most similar to rural police duty where officers operate without close backup (Sims, 1988). Indeed, the UNPROFOR region consisted of small towns and villages. Rather than believing in personal invincibility, a rural duty officer acknowledges personal vulnerability. As is often the case for rural officers, CIVPOL maintained personal safety and accomplished their work through persuasion and adherence to traditional values (Lyerly & Skipper, 1981).

Rural law enforcement is part of the community due to similar shared beliefs, common history and participation in social activities (Sims, 1988; Klonski & Mendelsohn, 1970). Similar to other rural communities, the fractious Balkan communities did not trust outsiders, even those invited as peacemakers. Unlike rural police, CIVPOL officers could not establish themselves as local community members. Commonality did not develop between CIVPOL and local people, who viewed the officers as objects to manipulate for survival and personal advantage. The interpersonal hostility and disregard are quite different than the frequent helping behavior that Eränen and Liebkind (1993) identified between strangers in acute trauma situations. In contrast, Erikson (1994) found lack of communality and disregard for outsiders within repeatedly traumatized communities. In chronically traumatized inner city neighborhoods, residents often view police as an occupying force representing an elite segment of society (Hacker, 1992). Common police practices did not adapt easily to the UNPROFOR regions.

Implicit Authority

During the funeral negotiations, CIVPOL assumed implicit authority to broker an agreement. The factions ceded power to CIVPOL. Both sides and CIVPOL shared an implicit expectation of police power. The two sides could not resolve the conflict, and resolution was a mutual desire. Resolution required outside facilitation, so the two sides turned to CIVPOL. That is, neither side explicitly relinquished power. The manipulations by each side for advantage in the situation threatened to enmesh CIVPOL in the fracas. By avoiding a fixed intermediary role, CIVPOL maintained a neutral stance, which caused both sides to become invested in a facilitated settlement.

In pressing for third-party facilitation, both sides acknowledged the CIVPOL expectation of authority. Once this expectation became operative, the officers pressed the factions towards agreement. By responding positively to CIVPOL pressure, the family further empowered the officers. These dynamics allowed CIVPOL to direct a mutual resolution. With this authority, the CIVPOL role shifted from negotiator to guardian of the funeral proceedings. The goal for CIVPOL was a peaceful and expedient event. Unfortunately, the goal for both factions was only the burial. Once this goal was realized the dynamics reverted to omnipresent strife. The officers were not disinterested or neutral to the funeral. They became invested in the success of the negotiations, in a non-violent outcome, and in the safety of the funeral participants. Despite their assistance, CIVPOL gained no recognizable standing among the participants. They remained outsiders to the day-to-day aspects of the conflict.


The original concept of neutrality precluded neutral groups from aiding or abetting an antagonist. Accordingly, the stated CIVPOL mission was limited to monitoring situation and reporting their findings. Nevertheless, CIVPOL officers implicitly acted to preserve human life. This stance stretched the understanding of neutrality, and doing so, made the officers vulnerable to manipulation by regional dynamics. Thus, the funeral negotiation involvement reduced CIVPOL neutrality.

Successful resolution of conflict did not increase local support for CIVPOL. Local people focused on survival, not civility. While expedient negotiations and a safe funeral resulted from CIVPOL involvement, the funeral was not outside the immediate political conflict. If nothing else, the funeral exemplified the conundrum of civil war. Local people viewed CIVPOL as a tool for personal gain and individual officers as depersonalized objects for manipulation. These interpersonal dynamics drew officers into dangerous situations and operated against officers maintaining personal neutrality.

Neutrality was more of an UNPROFOR illusion, than an accepted institution in the war zone. Apparent neutrality maintained legitimacy for the UN presence. Local dynamics cooperated in the illusion for its manipulation value. The impression of neutrality was continually managed within these dynamics. At times, officers used practices common to policing to maintain an impression of authority. At other times, the officers deceived local people about their real intentions and feelings. In usual police practices, personal deception is done from a position of greater power. CIVPOL maintained a cloak of apparent transparency to compensate for their lack of power.


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Clay Foreman © 2000. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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