The Dutch government will end its mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina in mid-November this year at the latest, bringing to a conclusion the Netherland’s participation in Operation Althea since December 2004. Initially, 530 Dutch soldiers were stationed in Bosnia which was ravaged by a civil war between 1992 and 1995, but today there remain only 85, that number to be reduced by 10 in the coming months.
Bosnia and the Netherlands have a tricky wartime history, and the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica has been the bane of the Dutch’s participation in the UN mission to Bosnia.
In April 1993, Srebrenica was demilitarized and placed under UN protection. As Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his army commander Ratko Mladic attacked the town in July 1995, only 450 lightly-armed Dutch peacekeepers were in place to protect civilians. A Dutch battalion serving with the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia was sent to Srebrenica in 1993 to protect the populace there. On 11 July 1995, they were easily disarmed by the Bosnian Serb army. Women and children found shelter at the Potocari UN compound near Srebrenica, and were later transported to territory controlled by Bosnian Army, while some 13,000 men and boys fled to the forests in an unsuccessful attempt to reach territory controlled under Bosnian Army control. The failure enabled Bosnian Serbs to capture and slay up to 8,000 Bosniak men and boys.
In 2004, the Srebrenica victims’ families handed Dutch authorities a proposal for an out-of-court settlement of €2 billion. During evidence-gathering civil hearings in early 2005, the Dutch government rejected a share of the responsibility.
After several years of attempting to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with the Dutch government and the UN, 14-strong Bosnian and Dutch legal team representing the victims’ families in June 2007 filed a civil lawsuit against the Dutch government and the UN, seeking compensation for failing to prevent genocide.
The 228-page complaint accuses Dutch troops mandated by the UN to secure Srebrenica of abandoning their positions when Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces approached on 11 July 1995 and handing thousands of men and boys over to be executed.
The lawsuit, prepared over the past six years, alleges that although the UN was aware of a pending Bosnian Serb military offensive at least two weeks before it began, neither the Dutch forces nor the UN took steps to save the local population of some 40,000, and were instead concerned only about the well-being of their own forces and had been instructed to use weapons only in self-defense.
After the filing of the lawsuit in June, the UN claimed immunity from legal action, citing Article 2 Section 2 of the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN.
Later in 2007, a district court in The Hague unexpectedly dismissed the UN’s legal immunity in the case. The ruling represented a legal and historical precedent in the first ever lawsuit against the UN. The court also dismissed the Dutch government’s demand that the case be dropped after the UN invoked its legal immunity and said it would not take part in the proceedings.
Dutch officials transferred the blame to the UN, which allegedly failed to provide sufficient support to defend the town, saying that compensation claims should be directed at the perpetrators of the massacre, Bosnian Serbs, whose several high-ranking officers have been sentenced for their roles in the Srebrenica massacre. Dutch military personnel complained that they had taken on the mission when no one else would, and that they were out armed and outnumbered.
Dutch authorities argue that the UN abandoned the peacekeepers by failing to give them air support when their observation post near Srebrenica was attacked, despite the fact that the soldiers stationed there had requested air support on nine occasions. The UN claims that its office in Sarajevo refused air support in Srebrenica because the Dutch commander there failed to fill the request form correctly.
Still, lawyers representing the victims say this claim is false and that they have evidence that then-UN chief of staff Dutch General Cees Nicolai turned down the offer of air support, and that his decision was backed by Joris Voorhoeve, the Dutch defense minister at the time.
General Rupert Smith, the commander of UN forces in Bosnia, and Ratko Mladic signed an agreement in Belgrade on 19 July 1995, at a time when thousands of Bosniak men had already been slaughtered, giving the Dutch soldiers a guarantee that they could safely withdraw from the enclave with all of their equipment and weapons, which happened two days after the signing.
The victims’ lawyers say that air support was obstructed for fear that troops could fall victim to friendly fire and because of information that Bosnian Serb forces had already disarmed and captured 15 Dutch soldiers days before the offensive. The lawyers also said that the Dutch public would not have accepted causalities in a country where their presence was dubious. The air support eventually arrived, but too late. NATO sent two planes to shell the Bosnian Serb positions, successfully targeting only one abandoned tank.
However, a previous Dutch administration accepted blame for the failed Bosnian peacekeeping mission. The entire government of former prime minister Wim Kok resigned in April 2002 following a report by the national Institute for War Documentation, which placed partial blame for Srebrenica with the government.
The UN also admitted its failure to protect the Bosniaks of Srebrenica as well in a 1999 report released by then-UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. “The UN Security Council should have approved more decisive and forceful action to prevent the unfolding horror in Bosnia and that ‘safe areas’ should never be established again without credible means of defense,” the UN’s report said.
The 155-page report said the UN had been wrong to declare it would only use NATO air strikes against the Serbs as a last resort. Annan criticized the Security Council staff at the UN headquarters and UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica.
In September 2010, a Dutch public prosecutor opened an investigation into the actions of Dutch soldiers serving as UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica.