Dutch State Found Liable for Srebrenica Killings

Girl sits on Srebrenica coffin
A girl sits next to a relative’s coffin, one of the 173 coffins of newly identified victims from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The Hague district court ruled Wednesday that Dutch state is liable for the deaths of 300 Bosnian Muslims after peacekeepers from the country failed to protect them during the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.

A group of relatives of the victims known as the "Mothers of Srebrenica" have been prosecuting the Dutch state for years over the deaths of 9,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys at the hands of Bosnian-Serb soldiers.

The Dutch military, under the command of the United Nations, had been stationed in the area of Srebrenica, east of Sarajevo, to protect the ethnic Bosnian population from advancing Bosnian-Serb troops led by Ratko Mladic, a general whose trial on war crimes related to the massacre was put on hold because of his declining health.

The area was designated for demilitarization in 1993, to stay "free from any armed attack or any other hostile act," by U.N. resolution. As part of the agreement, all Bosnian civilians gave up their arms and were assured Mladic's forces would not advance on demilitarized territories. A U.N.-protected compound was set up in Srebrenica to serve as a refuge from the violence.

But within two years of the resolution, Bosnian-Serb forces advanced on Srebrenica, overrunning the area and carrying out the largest campaign of ethnic cleansing in European history since World War II. The men and boys were shot with their hands tied and buried in mass graves. Work is still continuing to identify their remains and return them to their families.

The "Mothers of Srebrenica" have been seeking to bring to justice those in charge of preventing the genocide of the innocent Bosnian Muslims.

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Only a fraction of the families represented will be eligible for compensation from the Dutch government, however, as the court ruling refused to attribute full liability for the Srebrenica massacre to the Dutch government on the grounds that most of the Bosniak men and boys killed had died fleeing in the area around the U.N. compound.

The verdict goes some way toward healing the wounds left by the massacre, but it still seems too little and too late for some.

"It was the great failure of the international community," says Charlotte Eagar, a Newsweek contributing editor and a correspondent in the area for The Observer at the time.

"The people of Srebrenica were failed, not just by the Dutch soldiers inside the enclave, nor the Dutch government, nor the U.N., nor even their own Bosnian government, but by the world as a whole," she says.

"It must be some consolation to the survivors that the Dutch courts have ruled that their government is liable for at least 300 of the deaths—those Muslim men who were forced to leave the sanctuary of the Dutch U.N. compound," she adds.

"But it will never be enough for the people of Srebrenica or Bosnia. Morally, both the Dutch government and the U.N. should be held responsible for the deaths of many thousands more."