The Dutch Supreme Court on Friday upheld a decision that the Netherlands was partly responsible for the deaths of 350 Muslim men during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, but it slashed the level of liability for the Dutch government that was established in an earlier ruling.
An estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries after the storming of Srebrenica — a then mostly Muslim town in what is now the semiautonomous Serb region of Bosnia and Herzegovina — under the noses of Dutch peacekeeping troops assigned by the United Nations to protect it. The massacre was the worst in Europe since World War II.
In a summary of the judgment posted online, the court said it accepted the state’s liability for damages suffered by the surviving relatives of 350 men who were ordered by Dutch troops to leave the peacekeepers’ compound two days after the town was taken and said they could claim compensation.
But it limited that liability to 10%, a significant reduction from a 2017 court ruling by a Dutch court that established the state’s responsibility at 30%, meaning that the amount of damages that can be claimed from the Dutch government was similarly diminished.
This was the final ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Mothers of Srebrenica, an advocacy group for families of victims. Both parties in the case had appealed the 2017 decision to uphold a landmark 2014 judgment that first established the government’s liability, with the caveat that the victims would have had a 70% chance of being killed without wrongful action from the Dutch peacekeepers, a lightly armed force of fewer than 400.
Bosnian Serb forces under Ratko Mladic stormed the town of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, compelling approximately 25,000 people to take refuge with Dutchbat, a battalion from the Netherlands that had been on a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the region.
The United Nations and the Netherlands decided to evacuate the refugees from a safe area guarded by Dutchbat, because of appalling conditions, the court said. From that point, the troops stopped acting under the responsibility of the United Nations, and the Dutch state was responsible for their actions.
That included evacuating 350 men and boys who had been concealed in the Dutch compound, out of sight of the Bosnian Serb forces.
“Dutchbat failed to offer these 350 male refugees the choice to stay where they were, even though that would have been possible,” the court said. “That was wrongful, because Dutchbat knew that the male refugees were in serious jeopardy of being abused and murdered by the Bosnian Serbs, and all possible action should have been taken to prevent such an outcome.”
The ruling, with its clinical reliance on math and percentages, outraged some family members. “What do they mean with 10% liability?” Asim Salihovic, who had 40 relatives killed at Srebrenica, told The Associated Press. “As if 10% of us lived here?”
The 350 men ordered out of the compound became subject to the same treatment as the others by the Bosnian Serb paramilitaries. They were separated from the women, led to fields with their hands bound and shot.
The bodies were dumped into mass graves and scattered around to conceal evidence, and the exhumation and burial of new bodies has continued for decades after the killings, with growing rows of white tombstones at the Srebrenica-Potocari memorial.
Ank Bijleveld, the Dutch defense minister, said it was good to have clarity from the ruling and offered her sympathies to the victims’ families.
“The genocide of Srebrenica may never be forgotten,” Bijleveld said in a statement.
But the defense ministry also added, “It is good to keep in mind who the guilty parties are in the Srebrenica genocide: the Bosnian-Serbian military forces” and said in the statement that Dutch soldiers found themselves in “exceptionally difficult circumstances.”
Friday’s ruling came just over a week after the 24th anniversary of the massacre. On July 11, the bodies of 33 victims were laid to rest at the memorial site.
Several trials have been held at national and international courts to establish responsibility for the massacre, involving a tangled web of evidence and actors as diverse as the warring sides and the international community.
In 2017, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia found Mladic guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was sentenced to life in prison.
©2019 New York Times News Service