Srebrenica Rears its Head Once Again

Steve Saideman on the recent Dutch court ruling that Dutch peacekeepers were partially responsible for the Srebrenica massacre.

By: /
17 July, 2014
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

On July 16, a Dutch court ruled that Dutch peacekeepers were partially responsible for the deaths of more than 300 Bosnian Muslims when Bosnian Serbs attacked the Srebrenica “safe haven” in 1995. This is not anything particularly new as the Netherlands has taken its responsibility in this matter far more seriously than pretty much everyone else.

In 2002, the Dutch government fell after its entire cabinet resigned due to a report on events in Srebrenica seven years earlier. Can you imagine an American or Canadian or British government reacting to events seven years earlier after a critical report is released? No. I didn’t think so. Indeed, has anyone in Belgium resigned in the aftermath of Rwanda?

The Netherlands developed a series of reforms to try to prevent a similar disaster in the future. Among these reforms is the Article 100 process in which the parties in parliament must approve of a letter that explains the purposes and means of a military deployment before the troops are sent. In terms of military planning, this is a remarkably transparent process. With that said, it might mean too much legislative influence on what actually goes into a military deployment, but the letter requires a clear statement of purpose, clarity about the rules of engagement and so on.

This latest ruling is consistent with a previous one—that the Netherlands is responsible for those Bosnian Muslims who had been in the UN compound (that the Dutch had been staffing) and who were then expelled. The courts have ruled that the Dutch are not responsible for those that never made it into the compound.

As I have noted previously about a similar case, there is plenty of blame to go around. Obviously, the actual killers are primarily responsible, with the International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia taking those cases, including of Ratko Mladic, the commander of the genocidaires. Canada itself neatly dodged responsibility as the Canadians had peacekeepers in Srebrenica before the Dutch but re-deployed because they saw what was going to happen and didn’t want to be present.

The United Nations perhaps cannot get sued, but, in my mind, it has more responsibility than anyone besides the Bosnian Serbs in this case. The Dutch peacekeepers were willing to fight, but needed air support as they were outmanned. At the time, the NATO planes that could be sent were subject to a dual-key system. Any decision to drop bombs required approval from both the local NATO representative and the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative, and the UN representative said no.

The lesson to be learned? Well, the Dutch learned to always bring their own airpower when they deploy, so that they can get the support they need even if an international organization says no. That’s right—the Netherlands would de-flag their planes and fight under the command of the Dutch if their multilateral bosses were to get in the way in an emergency. Which is why we saw something very strange from 2011-2014—the Dutch police training missions abroad included F-16’s.

The articles reporting these developments argue about the prospect of these types of lawsuits causing countries to decline participation in present and future peacekeeping efforts. This may be true, but we should also remember that there are already enough deterrents to participation in such efforts, including the lesson learned from Somalia and Rwanda—that the “bad guys” may try to kill peacekeepers at the outset so that they go home.

What the recent Dutch case really reminds us is that the notion of responsibility to protect carries a very heavy burden, which is perhaps why the reality is that most countries tend not to actually bear the responsibility at all.

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