Global Policy Forum

Dutch State Responsible for Three Srebrenica Deaths, Says Court

  In a historic verdict, the Dutch Appeals court ruled that the Netherlands is responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslims in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. This is the first time that a state has been held responsible for the actions of the UN peacekeeping troops they contributed to a UN mission. The court rejected the Dutch government’s claim that countries are not responsible for troops stationed under UN authority. This ruling, if upheld in the higher courts and applied in other UN member countries, has the potential to ensure that peacekeeping troops are accountable for their actions under their domestic laws and “cannot enjoy immunity behind a UN cloak.”

By Ian Traynor

July 5, 2011

Relatives of the victims of Europe's biggest massacre in decades won a landmark case, immense satisfaction, and the likelihood of substantial damages when a Dutch appeals court ruled for the first time that the Netherlands had to answer for the deaths of Muslim men at Srebrenica 16 years ago.

The verdict stunned the Dutch government as well as the plaintiffs, who have campaigned on the issue for more than a decade and had almost given up.

If the ruling is upheld by the supreme court, there could be hundreds of claims for damages from relatives from some of the estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males butchered by the Bosnian Serb forces under General Ratko Mladic, on trial at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague on charges of genocide.

The verdict also found for the first time that countries contributing to a UN peacekeeping mandate must answer for their actions and cannot enjoy immunity behind a UN cloak. The court rejected the Dutch government's argument that it was not responsible for its troops stationed in Srebrenica as they were under UN authority.

"It has been established that states who take part in UN peacekeeping operations cannot not be responsible for their actions. It's all about effective control," Liesbeth Zegveld, the lawyer for the two Bosnian plaintiffs, told the Guardian.

Hasan Nuhanovic, whose parents and brother were killed at Srebrenica, and the relatives of Rizo Mustafic, who worked as an electrician for the Dutch and was killed, have campaigned for years to get the UN and the Netherlands to bear partial blame for the atrocities on the grounds that at the time Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, was a UN-declared "safe haven" manned by Dutch troops serving with the UN. The court ruled that the Dutch state was responsible for those deaths.

A Dutch court rejected the plaintiffs' arguments in 2008, ruling that the Netherlands could not be held responsible as the Dutch troops were under UN authority. A parallel case ruled that the UN was immune to prosecution.

The appeal court verdict stunned the Dutch government and even blindsided the litigants.

"This comes as a surprise. We will have to study the ruling and then decide on our next steps," said a Dutch defence ministry spokesman.

Nuhanovic, the Bosnian Muslim who was the prime mover in the eight-year case, was taken aback.

"I wouldn't say I'm happy," he told the Guardian. "But I wasn't prepared for this. I've had so many difficulties. The Dutch state completely denied responsibility for this."

Nuhanovic was a translator for the Dutch troops in Srebrenica in July 1995 when the besieged Muslim enclave was overrun by Serbian forces under Mladic. Mustafic was working at the Dutch base at Potocari as an electrician.

Potocari is now a memorial centre and cemetery for the dead. More than 600 corpses recently exhumed from mass graves scattered across the region are to be buried there. They include the remains of Mustafic's father.

Some 5,000 people including 239 adult males had crowded into the Dutch Potocari compound seeking shelter from the Serbs.

Nuhanovic was allowed to stay on the base when the Dutch commanders ordered most to leave. He pleaded with Colonel Robert Franken to let his father, mother and younger brother stay. The outcome was a heartrending Sophie's Choice moment.

Nuhanovic's father had been a member of a trio of Srebrenica Muslims negotiating with Mladic days earlier. Because of that, at the last minute as the buses were leaving, Franken told the father he could stay. "Can my younger son also stay?" the father asked. "No," he was told.

The father went with his wife and son. None of them were seen alive again.

Nuhanovic is also considering pressing criminal charges against Franken and his superior officer in Srebrenica at the time, Tom Karremans.

The judges yesterday dismissed the argument that the UN alone was responsible and that the Dutch authorities had no liability.

"The Dutch state is responsible for the death of these men because [UN peacekeepers] Dutchbat should not have handed them over," the judges found.

The relatives of the two plaintiffs were expelled from the Dutch military compound following days of Serbian marauding during which people were beaten and murdered.

"The Dutchbat had been witness to multiple incidents in which the Bosnian Serbs mistreated or killed male refugees outside the compound. The Dutch therefore knew that … the men were at great risk if they were to leave the compound," the court said.

While the Dutch government may go to the supreme court to appeal the verdict, lawyers do not expect it to win since the supreme court would only consider legal aspects of the case, while not contesting the facts established.

The court heard, for example, of the frequent contacts, orders, and discussions held between the Dutch government and its commanders in Srebrenica during the emergency.

While lawyers do not expect the families of the thousands of victims to claim compensation from the Dutch, there may be demands from the families of the 239 men expelled from the compound to their deaths.

"It won't be about American-style sums of money," said Zegveld. "This has always been about accountability rather than compensation."She said the Dutch government should forestall further legal cases by setting up a compensation fund for the families.

Just 24 hours earlier, the alleged mastermind of the massacre, Ratko Mladic, taunted the international war crimes tribunal in the same city, The Hague, and had to be removed from the court months after he was arrested north of Belgrade following a decade as a fugitive."Justice is winning finally," said Nuhanovic. "This verdict today and yesterday I was at the Mladic hearing. It's incredible."


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