PN Member Joost Lagendijk Reflects on Court Decision about the Netherland's Liability for 300 Srebrenica Deaths

Joost Lagendijk
July 18, 2014

PN Member Joost Lagendijk reflect's on the ruling of The Hague's district court last week saying that the Dutch state was liable for the deaths of 300 men who were killed at the hands of Serbian forces led by general Ratko Mladic. These 300 men had sought refuge at a compound controlled by the Dutchbat (the name of the Dutch UN force) in the nearby village of Potocari. When Serbian troops overran Srebrenica, the men were ordered to leave Potocari.

Read the full artcile on the website of Today's Zaman.

With Israel bombing and invading the Gaza Strip and Ukrainian pro-Russian rebels taking down a plane, it was easy last week to overlook another, much smaller piece of news. Let me explain why it would be a mistake not to register and interpret a decision taken by a district court in the Netherlands last Wednesday.

The court in The Hague ruled that the Dutch government is liable for the deaths of around 300 victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia.

In July 1995, a lightly armed Dutch battalion that had been deployed to protect the town of Srebrenica, which had been designated a safe haven by the United Nations, was forced to surrender to the much larger Bosnian Serb army commanded by Ratko Mladic. Under pressure from Mladic's troops, the Dutch peacekeepers forced thousands of Bosnian Muslims who had sought refuge in the Dutch compound out of their base. Most were women and children who were transported to other parts of Bosnia. But 300 men and boys were taken by the Bosnian Serbs and later killed. The court ruled that the peacekeeping team, known as Dutchbat, shared responsibility for the deaths of the 300 men and boys. The force “should have taken into account the possibility that these men would be the victims of genocide. Had Dutchbat allowed them to stay in the compound, these men would have remained alive.” The court also said the Netherlands was not liable for the deaths of the around 8,000 other men and boys who had fled into the forests around Srebrenica, where most of them were killed and buried in mass graves.

Wednesday's ruling is the latest in a long series of dramatic events concerning the Dutch responsibility for what is considered Europe's worst massacre since World War II. In 2002, the then-government resigned following a report by an independent Dutch institution that blamed the Dutch authorities and the UN for sending ill-equipped troops without a strong mandate to prevent the slaughter. Last year, the Dutch Supreme Court found the Netherlands responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslim men who had been wrongfully ordered to leave the compound during the massacres. Last Wednesday's ruling basically extends the Supreme Court's reasoning to include all Bosnian men and boys that could have been saved by the Dutch peacekeepers.

The importance of these rulings goes far beyond keeping alive the Dutch national trauma or giving satisfaction to the families and relatives of the victims, who will be financially compensated by the Netherlands. The Hague ruling confirms there is a growing acceptance that an individual state can be held responsible for the conduct of its international peacekeepers, even if and when these operations are conducted under the flag of the UN. In the past, similar attempts to hold international peacekeepers responsible for human rights violations have been unsuccessful. The main reason is the fact that the UN enjoys “absolute immunity,” a judgment that was confirmed by the ruling of the Dutch Supreme Court in 2013. It follows from an argument explained by Professor Jon Silverman to the BBC: “According to UN rules, when states assign troops to peacekeeping duties, the forces answer solely to the Security Council. And the UN Security Council is not a party to the Geneva Convention and its various protocols.”

With the UN beyond scrutiny, the Dutch Srebrenica judgments have a great legal and symbolic significance. As Dutch international criminal defense lawyer Jozef Rammfelt formulated it: “This ruling sets an important precedent that countries providing troops for UN peacekeeping operations can be held legally responsible for their actions. Other states around the world will have to take note and I imagine they will think twice about their legal liabilities.”

That conclusion perfectly summarizes the ambivalent nature of last week's ruling: It satisfies the legitimate and fully understandable wish of the families of the Srebrenica victims to establish the culpability of all those involved in the death of their loved ones, not only the actual Bosnian Serb murderers. At the same time, this verdict might make it more difficult to find future peacekeepers needed to protect the lives of other victims of brutality and violence.


For more information about the court's decision, see articles by The New York Times and BBC.

PN Member Joost Lagendijk has been Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009. He is now living and working in Turkey as a columnist for the Turkish dailies Zaman and Today's Zaman.

Photo courtesy of nadeen.

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