“Those who did this have to be punished,” utters Mevlid Halilovic, standing at the site of Europe’s worst mass killing since World War II. His grief – and that of his fellow mourners – is the enduring legacy of the Srebrenica massacre. They’ve gathered at a mass grave to mark the slaughter’s 24th anniversary, remembering 8000 of their loved ones – Muslim men and boys, murdered by Bosnian Serb troops. Outgunned and outnumbered, Dutch troops charged with the civilians’ protection had handed them over without firing a shot. Despite this, the Netherlands must accept just 10% liability for the catastrophe, a new court ruling has said, stymieing hopes of closure and compensation for those still living with the consequences.
The Bosniaks, the Balkans’ Muslim minority, had faced persecution for the duration of the Bosnian War. But as the conflict began to draw to a close in 1995, subjugation turned to ethnic cleansing. Bosnian Serb troops rounded on the Muslim majority town of Srebrenica, driving its inhabitants to seek refuge at a nearby UN peacekeeper compound. When the heavily armed forces of Ratko Mladic arrived at the Dutch military installation, orders came down to evacuate with the civilians in tow. While thousands outside the base were massacred, particular focus has fallen on 350 men and boys who were concealed within the compound. Fearing the Bosnian Serb’s superior fire power, ‘Dutchbat’ – as the army unit was known – expelled these evacuees, sealing their fate.
It was the relatives of these victims who brought the case against the Dutch state. A court in 2017 ruled national liability to be 30%, but overturning that decision, the Netherlands’ top judges have now said the state’s accountability is no more than 10%. That was the chance of survival had the 350 been allowed to remain in the compound, read the Supreme Court’s strikingly clinical verdict. Dutch defence minister Ank Bijleveld applauded the “clarity” of the ruling – but it has been received with fury by those most directly aggrieved.
“I am shaken, I did not expect this,” said Munira Subašić, leader of the ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’ group who brought the case. “Today we experienced humiliation upon humiliation. I only have two bones. I have found less than 10% of his body,” she added, speaking of her murdered son Nermin.
He had been plucked from his family as they were herded into groups by Dutchbat soldiers, who were evacuating the civilians through tunnels to awaiting deportation buses. Channelled through narrow gates, attendant Bosnian Serb troops easily separated the men and boys from the crowd. It was this negligence, coupled with the expulsion of those seeking refuge indoors, that must be answered for by the Dutch state, loved ones argue. But with the reduced legal liability certified by the land’s highest court, they can now expect little in the way of restorative action.
Some had hoped that the landmark case might set a new global precedent for the accountability of peacekeeping troops. When the evacuation order was made, authority was passed from UN command to the Dutch government, so the ruling might’ve had implications for the future behaviour of state actors charged with preserving life. But the diminished verdict is likely to have hampered meaningful progress, experts believe.
“Although the judgement leaves open the door to ‘troop contributing country’ accountability for peacekeeper abuses (or wrongful omissions), it does so only very slightly,” said Tom Dannenbaum, an international law professor at Tufts University. “In most cases, the procedural black hole of sole UN attribution and comprehensive UN immunity will ensure a lack of accountability,” he added.
The case has however helped rekindle a related campaign – that of Dutchbat veterans seeking compensation of their own. Many of those who served at Srebrenica feel they were betrayed by the Dutch state, which – they argue – set them an “impossible mission” in protecting the Muslim enclave. One hundred or so veterans are suing the government, demanding restitution and an official apology. A certain solidarity between former Dutchbat fighters and the families of Srebrenica victims has emerged over the years, with one ex-military man, Remko de Bruijne, describing the Supreme Court’s judgement as “a disgrace”.
And though many would agree with him, those suffering the worst of Srebrenica’s legacy have little recourse to their shattered hopes of a sufficient resolution. With the state accepting blame, however marginal, the aggrieved can now claim compensation – but the sums paid out are expected to be negligible given the government’s newly reduced liability. And all the while forensic experts are unearthing new remains in the nearly 100 mass graves. The bodies are identified through DNA analysis and buried again at a memorial centre near Srebrenica, where the victims were last seen alive. For their families, the hunt for closure goes on.