Dutch Peacekeepers Are Found Responsible for Deaths
Author: Marlise Simons
Uploaded: Tuesday, 10 September, 2013
IHT report on a landmark ruling that should finally allow the families of Bosnian victims of the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995 to receive damages from the Netherlands government
In a decision that may pose new risks for countries involved in international peacekeeping operations, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled [6 September 2013] that the Netherlands was responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslim men because Dutch peacekeepers had wrongfully ordered them to leave the United Nations compound during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
The court dismissed the arguments presented by the Dutch government that holding peacekeepers accountable for events that happened during their mission would deter future United Nations operations and make countries less willing to supply troops. It said that these were not valid reasons to exempt peacekeepers from judicial scrutiny.
Liesbeth Zegveld, the victims’ lawyer, said the decision was a breakthrough because ‘it establishes that peacekeepers or the U.N. cannot operate in a legal vacuum, where there is no accountability or redress for victims’ as there had been until now. She said there had been too much hiding behind ‘walls of immunity’ by the United Nations. ‘This says clearly that countries involved in U.N. missions can be held responsible for crimes,’ she said. ‘They are not always covered by the U.N. flag.’
The Dutch Supreme Court, which was upholding a 2011 appeals court judgment, said that even though United Nations commanders were in charge of the peace mission at Srebrenica, in the days after the Serbian takeover, the Dutch authorities in The Hague had ‘effective control’ over the troops and therefore shared responsibility in the case.
The ruling on Friday ended a 10-year legal saga that wound its way through three Dutch courts as government lawyers fought to have the victims’ suit struck down. Two Bosnian families are now expected to receive damages from the Dutch state, and other cases could follow. The amounts have not been determined.
The case goes back to July 1995 when Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Gen. Ratko Mladic overwhelmed a force of fewer than 400 lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers, known as Dutchbat, and seized control of the so-called safe area around Srebrenica, killing virtually every man and boy they captured. Nearly 7,000 bodies have been dug up from mass graves.
After the fall of the town, on 11 July, some 30,000 people amassed in the area around the peacekeepers’ base, and about 5,000 refugees, including 239 men of military age, were allowed to stay within the walls of the United Nations compound. Dutchbat soldiers knew that outside the compound men were being killed and abused, the court summary said, but the soldiers decided not to evacuate most refugees, including the three men, along with the battalion and instead sent them away on 13 July. ‘Outside the compound, they were murdered by the Bosnian-Serb army or related paramilitary groups,’ the summary said.
Among them were the father, mother and younger brother of Hasan Nuhanovic, who had filed the case. Mr. Nuhanovic, who worked as a United Nations translator, and his father were told they were allowed to stay. But as soldiers ordered Mr. Nuhanovic’s younger brother and his mother to leave the compound, his father joined them. They were never seen again. Rizo Mustafic, an electrician on the base, was similarly told to leave the compound. His relatives also joined the lawsuit.
‘I feel we heard the truth today, at least part of the truth,’ said Mr. Nuhanovic, whose mother’s death was not included in the case. ‘The court used clear language; it said my family and the other refugees were handed over to the Serbs. This was always downplayed in all the reports. One chapter is now closed today,’ said Mr. Nuhanovic, speaking from The Hague. He was 27 at the time, and now at age 45 he is still working on behalf of victims.
Not far from the Supreme Court, General Mladic, who seized Srebrenica, is on trial at the United Nations war crimes court on charges of genocide.
The slaughter at Srebrenica has long haunted the Netherlands. It has conducted lengthy investigations into the decisions made by its government and its troops and the refusal to answer the commanders’ call for air support. A previous government resigned in 2002, saying it had sent too few men, too lightly armed, on a ‘mission impossible.’
This report appeared in The International Herald Tribune, 6 September 2013.