Court Says the Dutch Are to Blame for Srebrenica Deaths

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File / AP

In this July 13, 1995 file photo Dutch U.N. peacekeepers sit on top of an APC while Muslim refugees from Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, gather in the village of Potocari, some 5 kms north of Srebrenica.

It's been a long road to justice for Hasan Nuhanovic. The former U.N. interpreter for Dutch peacekeepers who were stationed in Srebrenica in 1995, at the end of the Bosnian war, has been battling the Dutch state in civil court for nine years, trying to force it to take responsibility for the murders of his father and brother by Bosnian Serb forces. When a ruling Tuesday by an appeals court in the Hague placed the blame squarely on the Dutch government's shoulders, Nuhanovic was rendered virtually speechless. "I really don't know what to say," he told journalists outside the courtroom. "I prepared myself for a negative outcome, I didn't prepare myself for a positive outcome." He then added that he felt "relieved."

On July 11, 1995, the Bosnian Serbs overran Srebrenica, which had been designated a UN safe haven. By July 13, outnumbered and poorly equipped, Dutch U.N. peacekeepers — or Dutchbat — bowed to General Ratko Mladic's demands and forced the many Muslim families who had sought refuge on their base out of the compound. The women were separated from the men, who were driven away and murdered by Bosnian Serb troops. In total, some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed over the course of one week that July, more than 200 of whom had been thrown off the Dutch base.

Such were the hurdles facing Nuhanovic as he tried to overturn a lower court's 2008 decision that the Dutch state bore no responsibility for having handed his family over to the Bosnian Serb troops that even Nuhanovic's lawyer, Liesbeth Zegveld — who declared before the verdict that "it's hope against knowing better" — said she didn't consider such a victory possible within the confines of the Netherlands. "It's too big, it's too much a trauma in our state," she said on Tuesday. "And I thought the court would not be able to disentangle themselves from the drama."

But disentangle it did. In a historic decision, appeals judges ruled that "the State is responsible for the death of these men as Dutchbat should not have turned these men over to the Serbs." The Dutch had already witnessed, according to a summary of the decision, Bosnian Serbs beating up or killing male refugees outside the compound in Srebrenica and were aware of the risks of sending the three men off the base.

The men at the center of the case were Nuhanovic's father, Ibro Nuhanovic; his 19-year-old brother Muhamed; and Rizo Mustafic, an electrician who worked on the compound. Mustafic's son was also in the Hague Appeals Court to hear the verdict on Tuesday. "I am very happy, finally," Mustafic says. "It feels great. I'm going to bury my dad [on] July 11, and this is so good." Every July 11, the anniversary of the takeover of Srebrenica, relatives of those who were killed have the opportunity to bury the remains of their loved ones, which are still being dug out of mass graves and identified.

For Nuhanovic, the court's finding that his family was forced off the base on July 13 and didn't leave of its own accord is crucial. Nuhanovic was allowed to stay because he worked for the U.N. At the last moment, his father, who represented the Bosnian Muslims in negotiations with Mladic and then Dutchbat commander Thom Karremans, was told he could also stay. But Nuhanovic's mother and younger brother were ordered to leave. "Initially state lawyers said my father was given a choice to stay or leave," Nuhanovic told reporters after the ruling. "But my father was not given a choice, because his younger son was sent out. How can a father leave his younger son like that? So my father went out of the compound with my brother." And his mother. Nuhanovic never saw any of them again.

The Dutch state has always argued that because its troops were serving under the auspices of the U.N. during the Bosnian war, the Netherlands could not be held responsible for its actions. But judges found that after the fall of Srebrenica, Dutch military and political leaders were in "effective control" of their troops — even though command and control was officially in the hands of the U.N. "It's the first time, I believe, that a state is being held accountable during a peacekeeping operation where things went wrong," said Zegveld, Nuhanovic's lawyer. "The state had always warned — almost threatened — during the proceedings that if that happened, there's a chance that [The Netherlands] won't contribute any new troops [to U.N. peacekeeping missions.]"

Indeed the ruling could have far-reaching implications for other countries that may be wary of sending their troops on peacekeeping operations in which they could ultimately be held responsible for their actions. And because the Dutch government has been ordered by the court to pay compensation to the plaintiffs, Tuesday's ruling could pave the way for similar claims by other Srebrenica victims, especially those whose relatives were also forced off the Dutch compound.

After the verdict, former Dutchbat commander Thom Karremans sent a statement to a Dutch news program saying that although he always regretted what happened in Srebrenica, his regret won't bring Nuhanovic's family back. Lawyer Zegveld, Nuhanovic and Mustafic's relatives have a criminal case pending in the Dutch courts against Karremans and two other top Dutchbat officials.

Surprised government lawyers, meanwhile, say they will have to study the verdict before deciding whether or not to appeal. That will no doubt reopen a painful chapter in Dutch history. In 2002, the government collapsed after an investigation by the National Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) blamed it — along with the U.N. — for sending ill-equipped Dutch soldiers on an impossible mission to Srebrenica. "You can say people would know what would happen with hindsight," says NIOD spokesman David Barnouw of Tuesday's decision. "But if [the Bosnian Serbs] killed three or four Bosnian Muslims, it's hard to infer they'd go on to kill 7,000."

"It's a correct verdict," said Joseph Reynen, a reserve officer in the Dutch army, who happened to be outside the courthouse after the verdict. "But the Dutch government is responsible for all 7,000 deaths because they sent the Dutch army not with a pistol, but with a water pistol."

Across town from the appeals court, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Mladic is on trial for 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity — including genocide for what happened in Srebrenica. Nuhanovic watched in court Monday as the former general was thrown out of his own arraignment for disrupting the proceedings and interrupting judges, leaving the bench to enter 11 please of "not guilty" on his behalf. "It's a spectacle for everyone. I don't care about that," said Nuhanovic on Monday, after Mladic was thrown out of court. "I care about the substance of the case."

And Nuhanovic isn't done seeking justice, if indeed he ever finds it. "This is just one of the cases I started, but definitely the most difficult one," he said, referring to his litigation against the Dutch state. "I started a case against the killer of my mother in Bosnia. And I might start a civil case against Mladic." Before Tuesday's judgment was even handed down, Nuhanovic was already filling out the preliminary paperwork to get that process started.