Dutch still furious with ‘great powers’ about Srebrenica

Hague Letter: US, Britain and France failed to support UN peacekeepers by air

In 2015, just days before the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, Bosnia’s former ambassador to the UN aimed a late-night tweet at the Dutch government – asking if it now realised it had been “set up” to take the fall for the worst slaughter in Europe since the second World War.

What Muhamed Sacirbey was tweeting was the “breaking news” that the reason Dutch peacekeepers, nominally in control of the UN “safe haven”, received no help against rampaging Bosnian Serbs on July 11th, 1995, was that a deal had been done behind their backs in Washington.

Much dirty laundry about what happened on and around that infamous day had been aired over the previous two decades. Events reflected well on almost nobody, with the exception of Labour prime minister Wim Kok, who resigned as a means of taking national responsibility.

The entire Srebrenica puzzle, however, had never been pieced together in a way that made sense.


It had transpired over the years that the Dutch had called for air support not once but 10 times in five days. The delays, said Nato, were because the request was on the wrong form and had to be resubmitted. Having then been told 40 jets were in the air, just a fraction arrived, with little impact.

Face death

As the Serbs advanced, the Dutch infamously forced local Muslim men who worked for them – electrician Riza Mustafic and others – to leave the compound instead of being evacuated with the troops, knowing they would face death. For this, the Dutch state was found legally liable in 2013.

In her book A Problem from Hell, former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power wrote: "Dutch commander [Thomas] Karremans reported to his UN superiors that the Muslims who had gathered outside the compound gates were 'in an extremely vulnerable position: the sitting duck position.'"

Almost by definition, the Dutch task had been impossible from the start: to defend 10sq km with a few hundred lightly armed troops, facing the firepower of thousands of battle-hardened Serbs, backed by the notoriously vicious paramilitary unit known as “The Scorpions”.

What happened as "Dutchbat III" stood aside, however, became the worst butchery on European soil in a generation, and genocide in the judgment of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

More than 8,000 Muslim males aged from 16 to 60, fighting age, were loaded on to trucks and buses, taken off to isolated fields, and systematically shot dead.

What emerged in 2015 then as the undoubted diplomatic perfidy of the three "great powers" – America, Britain and France – suddenly explained what had previously seemed inexplicable.

A TV documentary entitled Why Srebrenica Had to Fall alleged that on May 28th, 1995, the Clinton administration, after consultation by phone with French president Jacques Chirac and British premier John Major, had decided to suspend Nato air strikes "for the time being".

That was because of fears for the lives of 450 UN peacekeepers, mainly British and French, who had been taken hostage by the Serbs. Memorably, the hostages’ blue helmets were chained together in strategic locations to warn off potential Nato air assaults.

Life sentence

The White House decision was committed to writing but was otherwise taken "in silence", with no public statement, apparently so that Clinton and his allies would not appear weak.

So the commander of the Bosnian Serb forces, General Ratko Mladic, known as "The Butcher of Bosnia" – currently appealing an ICC life sentence for genocide and crimes against humanity – knew there would be no substantial air strikes when they overran Srebrenica.

The Dutch government, however, was never told.

Clinton's former national security adviser, Sandy Berger, a key on-the-record interviewee in research for the documentary, confirmed the secret three-party agreement – which he described as, in hindsight, "not a productive decision".

Asked if allies other than the British and French had been informed, Berger replied: “I assume they were informed, but I really can’t be sure . . . ”

The Dutch defence minister at the time, Joris Verhoeve, is still furious: "We should have been informed but we were not. We are allies, but the text of the decision doesn't even include the words 'the Netherlands'."

Air strikes could have changed the course of history, Verhoeve speculates: “I think Mladic would have changed his plans, called a halt. He would have surrounded the enclave but not invaded it.”

Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps today – the 23rd anniversary of Srebrenica – is the day the Netherlands should let go of at least some of that unwarranted guilt.