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Dutch court holds The Netherlands liable for actions of peacekeepers in Srebrenica

The AP reports in the New York Times:

The Netherlands was responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslim men slain by Serbs during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, appeals judges ruled Tuesday, ordering the Dutch government to compensate the men’s relatives.The landmark ruling could open the path to other compensation claims by victims who claim their male relatives should have been protected by the Dutch U.N. peacekeepers in charge of the U.N. ‘safe zone’ near Srebrenica during Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war.

It could also have wider implications for countries sending troops on U.N. peacekeeping missions, as it opens the possibility of national governments being taken to court for the actions of their troops even when they are under U.N. control.

The case was brought by Hasan Nuhanovic, an interpreter who lost his brother and father, and relatives of Rizo Mustafic, an electrician who was killed. They argued that all three men should have been protected by Dutch peacekeepers. Mustafic and Nuhanovic were employed by the Dutch peacekeepers, but Nuhanovic’s father and brother were not.

One of the relatives, Damir Mustafic, told The Associated Press outside the court that the ruling came just days before he was to bury his father’s remains in a Srebrenica cemetery. Some 600 bodies exhumed from mass graves around the town in the past year have been identified using DNA tests, and they will be interred Monday as part of commemorations for the 16th anniversary of Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.

“I am very happy, finally,” Mustafic said. “It has been a long case and it feels especially good because on the 11th, I have to bury my father.”

The victims were among thousands of Muslims who took shelter in the U.N. compound as Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Gen. Ratko Mladic overran Srebrenica on July 11 in what was to become the bloody climax to the 1992-95 Bosnian war that claimed 100,000 lives.

Two days later, the outnumbered Dutch peacekeepers bowed to pressure from Mladic’s troops and forced thousands of Muslim families out of the compound. Bosnian Serb forces sorted the Muslims by gender, then trucked the males away and began executing some 8,000 Muslim men and boys. Those bodies were plowed into hastily made mass graves in what international courts have ruled was genocide.

The ruling said even though the Dutch soldiers were operating under a U.N mandate, they were under the “effective control” of top Dutch military and government officials in The Hague when they ordered hundreds of Muslim men and boys out of their compound.

The ruling said the three men were among the last to be expelled and by that time the “Dutchbat” peacekeepers already had seen Bosnian Serb troops abusing Muslim men and boys and should have known they faced the real threat of being killed.

“Dutchbat should not have turned these men over to the Serbs,” a summary of the judgment said.

Government lawyer Karlijn Teuben said she would have to study the decision before deciding whether to appeal.

The Hague Appeals Court did not immediately set a compensation figure. Victims’ lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld said the sum would “not be in the millions.”

“This was never about money for the victims,” Zegveld said.

Zegveld was surprised the appeals panel overturned a 2008 court ruling that rejected any Dutch government responsibility.

“I didn’t consider this possible within the borders of the Netherlands,” she said. “Because we’re all too much involved. It’s too big, it’s too much a trauma in our state and I thought the court would not be able to disentangle themselves from the drama.”

Nuhanovic said the ruling was “a relief,” but he is still pursuing other cases at home in Bosnia.

“I am after the killers of my family, the Serbs who live in Bosnia,” he said. “One of them even works in the same building where I work … I have to go to my office every day to the same building and he’s still there. So this is just one of the cases I have been dealing with for the last 10-15 years.”

The Times continues to note:

Tuesday’s ruling is the latest step in dealing with a national trauma for the Netherlands.

The humiliated Dutch troops returned home from Srebrenica to scathing charges of cowardice and incompetence, although subsequent inquiries exonerated the ground forces.

The Dutch government resigned in 2002 after an investigation by the National War Documentation Institute blamed the debacle on Dutch authorities and the United Nations for sending the battalion into the mission, failing to give the peacekeepers enough weapons for self-defense and refusing to answer the commanders’ call for air support.

Zegveld said although the ruling was tightly focused on the three victims named in the case, it would likely give hope to others.

“I assume that for those families who had male members on the compound that they stand a good chance to win their case as well,” she said.

It was not immediately clear how many other relatives — if any — are suing the Dutch state.

Zegveld said she also is considering launching a civil case in Dutch courts against Mladic, who was extradited here by Serbia in May after more than 15 years on the run.

Mladic is being held at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, where he faces 11 charges including genocide for commanding troops responsible for atrocities including the Srebrenica massacre.

Mladic belligerently refused to enter any pleas to the charges at a hearing Monday and judges entered not guilty pleas on his behalf. He faces a life sentence if convicted.

Without a doubt the massacre at Srebrenica is one of the lowest points in the history of UN peacekeeping. And there is much blame to go around. What strikes me as strange about this case is that the Dutch government is held legally liable for actions of peacekeepers that were under United Nations command. Shouldn’t liability rest with the United Nations? The consequence of this ruling may very well be that states will be less likely to contribute troops to peace operations– or they may only do so with such strings attached that it could make any type of unified command quite difficulty.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.