Srebrenica victims’ families are awaiting a landmark judgement in their lawsuit against the Netherlands over accusations that Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent their relatives’ deaths in 1995. A few days after the 19th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacres, the district court in The Hague will deliver its verdict in the case of 6,000 survivors who are suing the Dutch state for the failure of its soldiers who were part of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Bosnian town in July 1995 to protect their loved ones.
By: Denis Dzidic, Amer Jahic | BIRN | The Hague
The verdict, which due to be handed down on July 16, could also influence the role and obligations of troops taking part in future UN peacekeeping missions elsewhere in the world. After the Bosnian Serb army took over Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, many Bosniak men and boys tried to escape through the woods while others, including women and the elderly, headed for the nearby UN peacekeepers’ base at Potocari, where the Dutch battalion (known as ‘Dutchbat’) was stationed.
Several hundred men managed to get inside the Potocari base, but were told by the Dutch troops that they would be safe outside and were handed over to the Serbs, who later killed them. An estimated 6,000 of the men who fled through the woods were also killed.
The Dutch peacekeepers, who were stationed in Srebrenica after it was declared a ‘safe area’ by the UN in 1993, had an obligation to protect the civilian population. The suit charges them with failing to do so. The Srebrenica relatives’ lawyer, Marco Gerritsen, told BIRN that he expects that the Dutch state will be found responsible for the deaths of some of the Srebrenica men, but perhaps not all of them.
He said it is likely that the Netherlands will be found guilty over the deaths of the 200 to 300 men who were inside the base in Potocari but were handed over to the Serbs, because there is already a legal predecent for this.
The Netherlands’supreme court ruled in September last year that the Dutch state was responsible for not preventing three Bosniak men from being killed after they were expelled from the base. Lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, who represented Hasan Nuhanovic, one of the Bosnians who brought the case, said that the basis of the verdict lies in the fact that the Dutch battalion made a decision to expel the Bosniaks from the compound instead of protecting them.
“The core issue in our case was who was is charge on that day, on that spot in Srebrenica and made the decision to give the Bosniaks to the Serb army,’’ explained Zegveld. “The UN gave the orders to protect the civilians, but the Dutch soldiers acted against this order,’’ she said. Gerritsen said that the Dutch state exerted direct control over its soldiers in Srebrenica. “We have proof that the Dutch defence minister called the commander of the battalion in Srebrenica and told them not to risk their lives and that he wanted all the soldiers back home. It is clear that is why the Dutch battalion did not meet its obligations to protect the civilians from the attack,” he said. He added that some Dutch soldiers even helped Serb forces separate the men from the women and children in Potocari before they were taken away and killed. He also insisted that the Dutch were guilty over the deaths of around 2,000 men who were just outside the Potocari base when they were arrested by Serb forces, considering that the battalion had jurisdiction over the entire territory. “They could have let them all inside and guaranteed their safety,” he said.
The most difficult case to prove will be that the Dutch soldiers should have known about and stopped the killings of men who did not come to the UN camp in Potocari but were instead captured in the woods around Srebrenica, Gerritsen said.
“However, we have proof that the Dutch soldiers saw killings and the separation of men and women and they should have concluded a crime was about to take place,” he insisted.
Gerritsen said that the Dutch have tried to prove that their soldiers were not to blame for the deaths because they were not in the woods or at the execution sites. However, he said that the fact that they saw preparations for these crimes in Potocari and failure to report it to the UN was proof of guilt. “The killings did not take place until several days after July 11, so if there had been reports, maybe there was the possibility for international community to act, but there were no reports,” he said.
Munira Subasic, a woman from Srebrenica whose husband and son were among those who were killed, insisted that the Netherlands was responsible for all the deaths, not just of the men who were thrown out of the UN compound in Potocari.
“The Dutch are to blame for every victim. They must answer for all deaths equally, and not make divisions and separate victims. That cannot be tolerated,” she said. She recalled how the Dutch soldiers told all the Bosniak civilians from Srebrenica to come to the Potocari base, promising them refuge.
“They said we were safe, that as long as we were there, nothing would happen. So they are accomplices to everything,” she said. Subasic’s son was detained and then killed after he was forced to leave the Potocari base where he had sought refuge. “He was sick, in the hangars there. They [the Dutch troops] threw him outside… They should have taken care of those sick and wounded people, but they didn’t,” said Subasic, who also lost family members who were killed after being captured in the woods around Srebrenica.
Hatidza Mehmedovic, another mother of a Srebrenica victim who also was in Potocari in July 1995, said that the Dutch troops “betrayed the people of Srebrenica”. “Those UN peacekeepers only achieved one result, and that is the memorial centre [at Potocari], a sea of white graves,” she said.
If this case against the Dutch is successful, the Netherlands would be liable to pay compensation to the families of those who were killed. Lawyers for the Srebrenica survivors also believe that the verdict should precisely define the obligations of future peacekeeping missions to avoid similar disasters. “I hope and I am sure that this is the way to make changes, and find who is responsible to stop something like this ever happening again,” said Gerritsen.
The mothers of those killed in Srebrenica insist meanwhile that justice will not be done unless the Dutch are found guilty of all the deaths. “Srebrenica was a protected zone and whether someone was a victim from the Potocari base or not, the Dutch should have protected everyone,” said Mehmedovic. Subasic, who finally buried the bones of her son last year, agreed: “They must answer for all those killed in Srebrenica. Especially those killed in the woods, because they were sent to the woods by the Dutch, who failed to protect them.”