Former Yugoslavia and the Role of British Forces

What is the role of the British Forces?

British forces have been involved in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia since the mid-1990s through their involvement in multilateral peacekeeping and conflict missions mandated by the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO).


The multinational, multiethnic federation of Yugoslavia began to crumble with the death of the long-serving President Marshall Tito in 1980. The disintegration of the state reached a climax in 1991, when the republics of Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence. The federal government, dominated by Serbia, rejected the declaration and war broke out that year.

After European Union monitoring had failed to halt the progression of the conflict, the UN intervened, first through the implementation of multilateral sanctions, and then through the authorisation of a number of peacekeeping operations.

The UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) that was in Croatia and Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 was granted extended authority to deliver humanitarian assistance and provide protection for so-called 'safe areas'. NATO air forces (which included UK personnel) were also mandated to provide support for the delivery of the peacekeepers' mandate on the ground. However, the weakness of the UN mandate was highlighted following the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, where UN peacekeepers were left helpless under the limited terms of their mandate to halt the unfolding slaughter of Muslims.

Exhausted by economic sanctions and under the threat of further action from NATO, the combatants agreed to bring the war to an end under the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995.

UK forces subsequently formed part of the post conflict mission initially mandated under UN Security Council Resolution 1031 (1995) – the military Implementation Force (IFOR) and subsequently the Stabilisation Force (SFOR), the latter being provided with an ambitious and broad mandate, ranging from the traditional conflict prevention to the modern roles of institution building and reconstruction tasks.

However, during 1998, conflict began to return in the Serbian province of Kosovo, an area dominated by ethnic Albanians that was left out of the Dayton settlement. International diplomacy – notably the 'Rambouillet Accords', failed, and brutal repression and widespread displacement of ethnic Albanians followed.

The UN proved unable to act, and NATO threats against Serbia, led by President Slobodan Milosevic, were ignored. In March 1999, the Organisation began an air campaign against Serbia.

Following such a major blow to its authority, the UN was keen to ensure the post-war situation was kept within its multilateral framework, and in UNSCR 1244 authorised an unprecedented multilateral peacekeeping operation (KFOR and UNMIK). In 2002 the UK was contributing some 3,000 personnel to KFOR operations.

Peacekeeping in Macedonia also saw high levels of British involvement, in the period of instability that almost broke out into full-scale war between the government and ethnic Albanian guerrillas, still armed from the Kosovo crisis, in 2001. In March 2003, NATO's peacekeeping mission in Macedonia was formally handed over to the European Union.

Status talks for Kosovo began in February 2006 and the UN Special Envoy for Kosovo, the former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, presented his Comprehensive Proposal for a Kosovo Status Settlement to the UN Secretary General in March 2007.

Following Kosovo's declaration of independence on 17 February 2008, the Alliance reaffirmed that KFOR would remain in Kosovo on the basis of UN Security Resolution 1244, as agreed by Foreign Ministers in December 2007, unless the Security Council decided otherwise.

NATO brought SFOR to a conclusion in December 2004 in light of the improved security situation in both Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the wider region. Peacekeeping responsibilities were assumed by the European Union force EUFOR. British troops served in the country under NATO, the UN and then EUFOR until 2007 when the situation was considered to be sufficiently stabilised for troop numbers to be reduced.

Former Defence Secretary John Hutton announced in October 2008 that  "following a review of the security situation", the UK's contributions to the NATO/EU Balkans Operational Reserve Force would cease on 31st December 2008.

In March 2012 it was announced that 120 UK troops were to be made available to the EU-led peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The soldiers will be based in the UK and ready to deploy at short notice as part of EUFOR Operation Althea. The troop commitment will not take effect before December 2012 in order to avoid any impact on the Armed Forces’ commitment to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.


The legality of the air strikes in Kosovo in 1999 is one of the most controversial political and legal issues of recent years, challenging the very core of the UN and international law.

This controversy was created by what some saw as the impotence of the United Nations against the resistance of pro-Serbian Russia and China, and then by the unabating slaughter occurring by the Serbian army in Kosovo. NATO intervention in Kosovo was justified on the legally dubious grounds of 'humanitarian intervention'.

The air strikes themselves proved highly controversial, with NATO forces launching attacks within Serbia itself and killing many civilians.

The need for the ongoing presence of British troops in the Balkans was questioned in some quarters – as was the share of the burden for peacekeeping between participating countries.

Also controversial have been claims that veterans of the Balkan campaigns have been exposed to radiation from depleted uranium ammunition. This ammunition, which is mainly used for piercing armour, has been linked to leukaemia and mental health problems. Although the British and US governments are on record as having known about the potential health and environmental hazards of the ammunition, both continued to authorise their use.

Depleted Uranium (DU) first emerged as a cause for concern in association with 'Gulf War Syndrome'. During the Gulf War, British tanks fired about 100 DU shells. None were used by British forces in the Balkans. However, the US fired around 860,000 DU shells during the Gulf War, along with 10,800 rounds in Bosnia and about 31,000 in Kosovo.


More than 600 troops, principally from the Welsh Guards, returned to the UK in 2008 ending more than 15 years of continuous UK military presence in Bosnia, though a small number of staff officers remain at the EU's military headquarters in the capital Sarajevo.

Between March and September 2009 the 167 UK personnel serving in Kosovo were reduced to a small number of posts, reflecting the significant progress made during that time in reinforcing stability and the changing requirements of the NATO force in Kosovo (KFOR).

Source: MOD – 2011


“While the security situation in the region remains calm and stable, it is essential that we provide the EUFOR force with the necessary resources to perform the mission’s mandate in full.
“EUFOR provides an important safeguard underpinning stability and ensuring that Bosnia and Herzegovina can continue to make progress on its path towards EU and NATO accession.”

Minister for International Security Strategy Gerald Howarth, confirming the commitment of 120 UK troops to EUFOR Operation Althea – March 2012