During the summer of 1995, at the height of the Bosnian war, Bosnian Serb forces waged a brutal siege on the border town of Srebrenica, killing thousands of men in what would eventually be seen as a pivotal point of the conflict. More than 19 years later, a Dutch court has taken a step toward holding the international community accountable for failing to prevent the massacre.
A Netherlands district court ruled on Wednesday that Dutch peacekeeping forces (Dutchbat) present in Srebrenica at the time were at fault for the deaths of 300 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) boys and men — out of about 8,000 total — who were killed at the hands of Serb forces.
“This is a very significant decision because the families of victims have been asking for recognition of Dutch involvement for almost 20 years. It establishes causality,” Jelena Subotic, an associate professor at Georgia State University, told VICE News.
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Whether the Dutchbat forces and the UN peacekeepers did enough to prevent the atrocities has long been questioned. The Dutch cabinet even resigned over the issue in 2002.
Yet during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, Srebrenica — located just 10 miles from the border with Serbia — became a haven for Bosniaks fleeing ethnic cleansing.
Despite being under UN protection, Bosnian Serb forces began their siege of the town with a shelling campaign on July 6, 1995. More than 20,000 Bosniaks sought shelter at the peacekeeping base, including in Dutchbat’s compound. They were sent back, and told their safety was ensured. Thousands of Bosniak men were taken by the Serbs and the first killings were reported on July 13.
'Anything that touches on Srebrenica always reopens wounds that were never really closed.'
"At the moment that the men were sent away, Dutchbat knew or should have known that the genocide was taking place and therefore there was a serious risk that those men would be killed," said Judge Peter Blok, who presided over the decision.
The ruling determined that: "It can be said with sufficient certainty that, had Dutchbat allowed them to stay at the compound, these men would have remained alive. By co-operating in the deportation of these men, Dutchbat acted unlawfully."
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Mothers of Srebrenica, a group made up of the victims’ relatives, initiated the case. The ruling did not necessarily please the plaintiffs — many are upset the Dutch were ultimately held accountable for relatively few deaths, only the 300 men who specifically sought shelter at Dutchbat’s headquarters.
"Obviously the court has no sense of justice,'' Munira Subasic, a representative for the group told the BBC. "How is it possible to divide victims and tell one mother that the Dutch state is responsible for the death of her son on one side of the wire and not for the son on the other side?''
The decision comes just a few days after the annual Srebrenica remembrance day celebrations held in Bosnia and other countries on July 11. This year Srebrenica marked the day with a mass burial of 175 victims. A anti-war group in Serbia faced threats ahead of a vigil they held in the country, which has still not fully acknowledged the genocidal events.
“Anything that touches on Srebrenica… it always reopens wounds that were never really closed,” Richard Kauzlarich, the former US ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, told VICE News. “[The court case] in itself is a bitter reminder of what happened in those horrific days when Srebrenica fell.”
According to Kauzlarich, ethnic tensions in the country have not resolved over time and these events give a reason to revisit the very issues that led to the conflict in the first place. While the physical damage of the war has largely been repaired, Kauzlarich said psychological fear and hatred towards others are still present.
'The execution of 8,000 people is a terrible thing, but there’s a question of how it’s being used to justify military intervention.'
Subotic said she does not expect this decision to affect reconciliation efforts. “I don't think this decision will do much because there is still very strong culture of denial in the Bosnian Serb community,” she said.
There are also some concerns this establishment of liability could have a detrimental effect on future UN peacekeeping missions.
Disagreeing with these assertions, Subotic said: “The behavior of the Dutch troops was so egregious and callous that I think any professionally and ethically trained peace mission in the future should be well capable of avoiding this behavior.”
Regardless, the damage to the UN’s abilities in conflict situations may have been done long before the Dutch courts got involved.
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In regards to the UN as a whole, Professor David Gibbs at the University of Arizona told VICE News that, “the culpability of the UN was overstated and seemed unfair to the extent the UN troops armed without a clear mandate, never intended for heavy fighting.”
He explained that Bosnia, and the Srebrenica failure specifically, paved the way for the UN to be seen as weak, while boosting NATO's status. Gibbs added that this legacy was solidified with the subsequent success of NATO military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, making military intervention appear to be the best option.
“What happened in Srebrenica is a terrible thing, the execution of 8,000 people is a terrible thing, but there’s a question of how it’s being used to justify military intervention,” Gibbs said, highlighting the Iraq War as an example where the US circumvented the UN security council.
In another vein, Kauzlarich highlighted recent events as examples of shortcomings in international humanitarian intervention. He specifically mentioned the current situations in Syria, Central African Republic, and Crimea, where the international community has been accused of not doing enough to protect civilians.
The UN acknowledged this issue in a report this spring evaluating its peacekeeping forces and results in protecting civilian mandates. Findings indicated that between 2010 and 2013 its peacekeeping forces did not respond with force during 10 of the deadliest clashes in conflict zones where its forces were present.
“The lesson has not been learned in a way that resolved into qualitative better intervention, the same issues are still at play,” Kauzlarich said.
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB
Photo from Flickr/Martijn Munneke