Dutch Srebrenica ruling: The wider impact

Women from the Bosnian town of Srebrenica stand as judges enter a civil court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Wednesday 16 July 2014 The case is yet another development in a continuing debate about the UN's relationship with the conventions of international humanitarian law

Related Stories

Lawyers, politicians and generals alike will be looking with great interest at a ruling by a Dutch court that the Netherlands is liable over the killings of more than 300 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys at Srebrenica in Bosnia-Hercegovina in July 1995, writes Media and Criminal Justice Professor Jon Silverman.

As ever with legal rulings, the devil is firmly in the detail.

It appears that the judges of the Hague district court made a distinction between the 300 Bosnian Muslims who were expelled from the UN compound before air support was requested and those, the vast majority, who were expelled later and subsequently murdered by Serb forces.

Why is the issue of air support important? Because the failure to provide it was held to be a direct responsibility of the UN - not the Netherlands Dutchbat peacekeeping force and, standing behind it, the state.

'Important precedent'

Relatives of the victims, campaigning as the "Mothers of Srebrenica", believe this is an artificial distinction and have already said they will appeal.

A Dutch UN peacekeeper standing near two unidentified Bosnian men in Srebrenica (1994) The UN declared Srebrenica a "safe area" for civilians in 1993. It fell in July 1995, after more than two years under siege
Dutch soldiers riding on an armoured vehicle accompanying a Dutch-UN convoy of 56 engineering vehicles on their way to Lukavac in Bosnia-Hercegovina (February 1994) A battalion of Dutch peacekeepers was stationed at Srebrenica and its surrounding area at the time of the killings

The Dutch international criminal defence lawyer, Jozef Rammfelt, said the judgment had the potential to be of great significance.

"Admittedly, this is a ruling of a lower court, but it follows a ground-breaking judgment of the Netherlands Supreme Court in 2013 that the state is liable to pay compensation for the victims of genocide," he said.

"This set an important precedent that countries providing troops for UN peacekeeping operations can be held legally responsible for their actions. Other states around the world will have to take note and I imagine they will think twice about their legal liabilities."

In the context of international law, this is yet another development in an ongoing debate about the UN's relationship with the conventions of international humanitarian law.

Bosnian Muslims, family members and survivors of the Srebrenica 1995 massacre, attend the burial ceremony at a memorial cemetery in Potocari near Srebrenica (11 July, 2014) The Muslim-majority town was a UN-protected area besieged by Serb forces throughout the war
Bosnian Muslims carry coffins during the mass funeral of 175 newly-identified victims from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in Potocari Memorial Center, near Srebrenica (11 July, 2014) The court stopped short of holding the Netherlands liable for the fate of the majority of men killed in Srebrenica

According to the UN, when states assign troops to peacekeeping duties, the forces answer solely to the Security Council.

And the UN Security Council is not a party to the Geneva Conventions and its various protocols.

For at least two decades, this has provoked tension with bodies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and in the absence of a controlling international legal regime and with sometimes ambiguous mandates, the burden of responsibility falls on field commanders on the ground.

The Hague court ruling means that there is a growing acceptance that an individual state can be held liable for deaths in a UN-mandated operation.

Bosnian Muslim women alongside the coffin of a relative, one of the 175 coffins of newly identified victims from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in Potocari Memorial Centre near Srebrenica (14 July 2014) It was a heartbreaking ruling for many bereaved women of Srebrenica, because the Dutch state was only found partly responsible for the deaths of 300 of the more than 7,000 men killed

Professor Philippe Sands, of University College, London, argues that while the Srebrenica massacre has been accepted by international jurisprudence as an act of genocide "it is potentially very significant that the Hague court has ruled that the Dutchbat force should have been aware that a genocide might be perpetrated".

Prof Sands is representing Croatia in a suit against Serbia for genocide during the 1991-95 conflict.

After last year's Supreme Court ruling that the Dutch state was liable for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslim men expelled from the UN compound and subsequently killed, the government offered 20,000 euros ($27,000;£16,000) to each of the victims' relatives.

This latest ruling will require a far larger amount to be paid out. But it is the consequences for existing and future UN peacekeeping operations where the true impact may be felt.

Jon Silverman is Professor of Media and Criminal Justice at the University of Bedfordshire.

Timeline of Srebrenica siege:
Bosnian Muslim women cry during the ceremony of the 6th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, in the village of Potocari, near Srebrenica on 11 July 2001.

6-8 July 1995: Bosnian Serb forces start shelling Srebrenica enclave

9 July: Bosnian Serbs step up shelling; thousands of Bosnian Muslim refugees flee to Srebrenica

10 July: Dutch peacekeepers request UN air support after Bosnian Serbs shell Dutch positions. Large crowds of refugees gather around Dutch positions

11 July: More than 20,000 refugees flee to main Dutch base at Potocari. Serbs threaten to kill Dutch hostages and shell refugees after Dutch F-16 fighters bomb Serb positions. Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic enters Srebrenica and delivers ultimatum that Muslims must hand over weapons

12 July: An estimated 23,000 women and children are deported to Muslim territory; men aged 12-77 taken "for interrogation" and held in trucks and warehouses

13 July: First killings of unarmed Muslims take place near village of Kravica. Peacekeepers hand over some 5,000 Muslims sheltering at Dutch base in exchange for the release of 14 Dutch peacekeepers held by Bosnian Serbs

14 July: Reports of massacres start to emerge

Timeline: Siege of Srebrenica


War in the former Yugoslavia 1991 - 1999

The former Yugoslavia was a Socialist state created after German occupation in World War II and a bitter civil war. A federation of six republics, it brought together Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, Slovenes and others under a comparatively relaxed communist regime. Tensions between these groups were successfully suppressed under the leadership of President Tito.
After Tito's death in 1980, tensions re-emerged. Calls for more autonomy within Yugoslavia by nationalist groups led in 1991 to declarations of independence in Croatia and Slovenia. The Serb-dominated Yugoslav army lashed out, first in Slovenia and then in Croatia. Thousands were killed in the latter conflict which was paused in 1992 under a UN-monitored ceasefire.
Bosnia, with a complex mix of Serbs, Muslims and Croats, was next to try for independence. Bosnia's Serbs, backed by Serbs elsewhere in Yugoslavia, resisted. Under leader Radovan Karadzic, they threatened bloodshed if Bosnia's Muslims and Croats - who outnumbered Serbs - broke away. Despite European blessing for the move in a 1992 referendum, war came fast.
Yugoslav army units, withdrawn from Croatia and renamed the Bosnian Serb Army, carved out a huge swathe of Serb-dominated territory. Over a million Bosnian Muslims and Croats were driven from their homes in ethnic cleansing. Serbs suffered too. The capital Sarajevo was besieged and shelled. UN peacekeepers, brought in to quell the fighting, were seen as ineffective.
International peace efforts to stop the war failed, the UN was humiliated and over 100,000 died. The war ended in 1995 after NATO bombed the Bosnian Serbs and Muslim and Croat armies made gains on the ground. A US-brokered peace divided Bosnia into two self-governing entities, a Bosnian Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation lightly bound by a central government.
In August 1995 the Croatian army stormed areas in Croatia under Serb control prompting thousands to flee. Soon Croatia and Bosnia were fully independent. Slovenia and Macedonia had already gone. Montenegro left later. In 1999 Kosovo's ethnic Albanians fought Serbs in another brutal war to gain independence. Serbia ended the conflict beaten, battered and alone.
BACK {current} of {total} NEXT

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Europe stories


Features & Analysis

  • Cartoon of women chatting on the metroChat wagon

    The interesting things you hear in a women-only carriage

  • Replica of a cargo boxSpecial delivery

    The man who posted himself to the other side of the world

  • Music scoreFinal score Watch

    Goodbye to NYC's last classical sheet music shop

  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton checks her Blackberry from a desk inside a C-17 military plane upon her departure from Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, bound for Tripoli, Libya'Emailgate'

    Hillary gets a taste of scrutiny that lies ahead

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • Audi R8Best in show

    BBC Autos takes a look at 10 of the most eye-catching new cars at the 2015 Geneva motor show


  • A cyborg cockroachClick Watch

    The cyborg cockroach - why has a computer been attached to this insect’s nervous system?

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.