Hague finding on Srebrenica leaves UN immunity hanging in the air

Supreme court rules Dutch state liable in relation to 1995 massacre

It is a fact of history usually forgotten when recalling the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb troops in Srebrenica in 1995 that when the commander of the Dutch peacekeepers defending the “safe haven” finally called in UN air support it never came.

Although Lieut-Col Thomas Karremans – much castigated over the years for being photographed smiling at a meeting with Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic – made an urgent request for two F-16s to neutralise the attackers' heavy armour, his request was inexplicably ignored.

As the situation deteriorated, Karremans’s call then had to be cancelled when Mladic’s forces threatened to execute 50 “Dutchbat” soldiers taken hostage. The rest, as they say, is history: the worst atrocity on European soil since the second World War, and the most shameful and psychologically difficult episode in the Netherlands’s modern-day memory.

UN failure
As the Supreme Court in The Hague recalled last Friday when it ruled the Dutch state was liable for the deaths of three Muslim men whose relatives had worked for Dutchbat, the Dutch peacekeepers failed in their duty to protect. The consequences were awful – thousands of men and boys bussed to execution sites and slaughtered. Yet the UN failed too.


And for the Netherlands, the refusal to provide strategic air support for Karremans has been emblematic of failure.

Seven years after the massacre, the official investigation by the Institute for War Documentation concluded the peacekeepers had been hung out to dry, by both the Dutch government of the day, which duly resigned, and by the UN, where nobody resigned.

The Dutch, said the 3,400-page report, never remotely had the means to stand against Mladic and his army.

Three years later, however, on the 10th anniversary of the massacre, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan admitted for the first time that the UN itself had made serious errors of judgment.

Legal responsibility
So, for relatives, there was deja vu as the Supreme Court found the Dutch state liable, while once again the UN, in their view, side-stepped legal responsibility. One group of relatives, Mothers of Srebrenica, represents 6,000 surviving relatives and has been conducting its own legal pursuit of the UN – so far to no avail.

Last year, the supreme court in The Hague ruled against it, saying the UN had immunity from prosecution.

The European Court of Human Rights was of the same opinion, underlining the principle that to give national courts jurisdiction over UN operations would allow states “to interfere with the key mission of the UN, which is to ensure international peace and security.”

“The UN, it appears, enjoys absolute power”, said a spokesperson for Mothers of Srebrenica. “It is legally unassailable and morally unanswerable – even when it is in the wrong.”

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court