Court Holds Peacekeepers Accountable for Genocide

Finally after 16 years, change is occurring in the case of the Srebrenica genocide. Dutch troops are being held responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslims in 1995 during the seven day genocide of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces, lead by General Ratko Mladic.

A Dutch local court in The Hague argued earlier this month that Dutchbat III, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Tom Karremans, should not have handed men over to Bosnian Serb forces. This verdict is unique; it is the first time a government has been held accountable for the conduct of its peacekeeping forces, carrying out a UN mandate.

In the last few decades, the international justice system has advanced to aid victims of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. A permanent International Criminal Court was created, ad hoc international courts were established such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and national courts have tried persons accused of crimes committed abroad, exercising universal jurisdiction.

While Mladic currently faces charges of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity at the UN-backed ICTY, other actors failed to take appropriate action to prevent the 1995 massacre. Moreover, states were never held accountable for their peacekeeping forces, believing the UN label would give them absolute immunity.

Although relatives of survivors, like the group “Mothers of Srebrenica,” question this immunity by suing the UN before Dutch courts, their efforts are often halted. The mothers claim that the UN and the Dutch government failed to prevent the genocide, therefore accountable for compensations. However, the District Court in The Hague and the Court of Appeals ruled otherwise in 2008 and 2010, respectively, stating that the UN has immunity from prosecution pursuant to international conventions.

However, the immunity dogma changed this month. Relatives of three murdered men brought a civil suit against the Dutch government. While the court stated earlier that the government could not be held responsible because troops were acting under the UN, it now judged that The Hague administration is accountable for the genocide. The Minister of Defense Joris Voorhoeve placed the peacekeeping forces under “effective control” of Dutch officials, and the 600 armed forces were heavily involved with the evacuation of refugees. During Karremans’ negotiation with Mladic about possible evacuation, Dutchbat III helped separate men from women and children. 

Before the Serb forces overran the “Safe Area” Srebrenica, the troops “evacuated” the refugees from the “Safe Area.” However, because they witnessed “multiple incidents” of mistreatment and killings by Bosnian Serbs, they should have known the Bosnian Muslims’ fates, according to the verdict. When the three men were among the last to be expelled on July 13, Dutch troops must have been aware of the conditions outside the “Safe Area.”

The Dutch peacekeepers were applauded for their actions at first, but when Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation Jan Pronk announced a mass murder had occurred, the tide shifted. Critical commentaries compared UN peacekeepers who rode on Bosnian Serb trucks to the conductors who drove the trains to deportation camps during WWII. The genocide remained a sensitive issue; the Dutch government collapsed in 2002 after an official report from the Netherlands Institute of War Documentation (NIOD) criticized it and the UN for not sending sufficient support. However, a report from IKV Pax Christi blamed the NIOD for not being critical enough. Mladic’s arrest on May 26, including his behavior during the ICTY trial and verdict, flared up the discussion again.

This court ruling has set a precedent. States can now be held responsible for the conduct of their peacekeepers. While compensation will be paid to the plaintiffs, it makes way for other claims of Srebrenica survivors. However, this decision will also have consequences for future peacekeeping missions, as states are no longer immune under the UN flag.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Ester van den Berg

Ester van den Berg received her MA Conflict Studies and Human Rights last year and she is currently completing her second MA Islam and Arabic in the Netherlands. For both masters she did extensive fieldwork research on conflict, human rights, religion, women and the resistance culture in Lebanon, where she is currently living. At present she is a research intern at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, conducting research on the Egyptian revolution and citizenship education in the Arab countries. She has lived in Brazil and Egypt and studied abroad at the Damascus University in Syria. In addition she has traveled extensively in the Middle East and Africa. Her main interests are conflict resolution, human rights, transitional justice and discourse.

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