Dutch state liable for Srebrenica deaths
Court ruling over death of three Bosnian Muslim men hailed as a legal milestone
Bosnian worker passes by human skull during exhumation at the mass grave site in a village of Budak, Bosnia a few hundreds meters near the Memorial Center Potocari near Srebrenica, on Tuesday, July, 10.2007. Funeral for the 465 bodies were excavated from mass-graves in Eastern Bosnia and were identified as Muslims killed by Bosnian-Serb forces in the Srebrenica area. Bosnian Serb troops massacred up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men after capturing Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The identified victims will be buried Wednesday on July 11, 2007 in the Memorial Center Potocari, next to some 2,600 victims of the massacre already buried there. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)
The Dutch state has been found liable by its supreme court for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslim men its peacekeepers forced to leave their compound in Srebrenica as the Bosnian Serb forces of Gen Ratko Mladic overran the United Nations “safe haven” in July 1995.
The “historic” ruling opens the Dutch government up to potentially enormous claims by relatives and descendants of the 8,000 Muslim men and boys who were slaughtered in the little mountain town, in the worst atrocity on European soil since the second World War.
The ruling could have serious implications for future UN peacekeeping missions, setting the precedent that member states can be held legally liable for the conduct of their peacekeepers, and making them more politically reluctant to commit troops to overseas trouble spots.
Yesterday’s case was taken by relatives of Rizo Mustafic, who worked as an electrician for the Dutch peacekeepers – known as “Dutchbat” – and by Dutchbat interpreter Hasan Nuhanovic, whose father and brother were both killed.
Forced to leave
Mr Mustafic was turned away from the compound and separated from his wife just outside its fence. He was shot and she was never seen again. Mr Nuhanovic was allowed to stay, but his father and brother were forced to leave. Their bodies were recovered in 2007 and 2010 respectively.
The supreme court judgment recalled how the lightly armed Dutch soldiers, many of whom feared for their own lives, infamously helped the Bosnian Serb troops as they separated women from men, before the men were bussed away to what it later became clear were execution sites.
As to the relatives of the plaintiffs, the ruling, read by Judge Floris Bakels, said: “Dutchbat decided not to evacuate them along with the battalion and instead sent them away from the compound.
“Outside the compound, they were murdered by the Bosnian Serb army or by related paramilitary groups.
“Dutchbat should not have turned these men over to the Serbs.”
Relatives of the victims broke down in tears and hugged one another as the judges issued their verdict, which ends their 10-year legal battle and is final.
Afterwards, Hasan Nuhanovic said that as the ruling was issued, “I was thinking of my family. They are dead for 18 years now. It does not change that, but maybe there is some justice, although it should have happened years ago.
“In the future, countries may act differently in peacekeeping missions, and I hope the lives of other people will be saved because this mistake was admitted.”
The Dutch human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, who represented the Bosnian families, described the decision as “historic”, because it established that the countries taking part in UN peacekeeping missions could be held legally liable – despite the UN’s far-reaching immunity from prosecution.
“We now know definitively that peacekeepers participating in UN missions are not always covered by the UN flag,” she said. “The most important conclusion today is that the UN flag does not give you immunity, as a state or as an individual soldier.”
Not far away, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Ratko Mladic is currently on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.