Dutch Supreme Court upholds Srebrenica deaths liability

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(Photo: AP)

The Dutch Supreme Court upheld Friday a lower court’s ruling that the Netherlands is partially liable in the deaths of some 350 Muslim men who were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

The Netherlands’ highest court ruled that Dutch United Nations peacekeepers evacuated the men from their military base near Srebrenica on July 13, 1995, despite knowing that they “were in serious jeopardy of being abused and murdered” by Bosnian Serb forces.

Presiding Judge Kees Streefkerk said “the state did act wrongfully” and told relatives of the dead they can now claim compensation from the Dutch government.

“They are responsible and they will always have a stain,” Munira Subasic, one of the relatives who brought the case, said angrily of the Dutch. “We know what happened; we don’t need this court to tell us.”

The ruling upholding a 2017 appeals court judgment was the latest in a long-running legal battle by a group of relatives known as The Mothers of Srebrenica to hold the Dutch government accountable for the deaths of their family members in Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.

Dutch Defense Minister Ank Bijleveld-Schouten said the government accepted the ruling.

“We want to express again our sympathy to the relatives of the victims,” she said in a statement. “The Srebrenica genocide must never be forgotten.”

The 350 men were among 5,000 terrified Muslim residents of the Srebrenica area who took shelter in the Dutch peacekeepers’ base when the region was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Gen. Ratko Mladic, who was convicted of genocide by a U.N. war crimes tribunal in 2017 for masterminding the massacre that left some 8,000 Muslim men and boys dead. Mladic has appealed.

The Supreme Court said that relatives of the slain men are eligible to claim 10% of their financial damages because the court estimated that the men would have had a 10% chance of survival if the Dutch troops had allowed them to remain inside their compound. The estimate was lower than the lower court’s previous ruling of 30%, meaning that the potential compensation is lower.

“The Dutch government is responsible for genocide,” said relative Kada Hotic. “One percent or 10%, it does not matter - they are responsible.”

She added: “We don’t care about money, we wanted justice.”

The relatives found support from Remko de Bruijne, a veteran of the Dutch peacekeeping force, known as Dutchbat, who attended the hearing in The Hague.

“I can understand their reaction because I don’t think it’s fair,” De Bruijne told Associated Press outside the court. “It’s not a fair thing. If people make mistakes — and Dutchbat made a mistake — so be it, that’s fine. I mean, I’m human I can make mistakes. But to say you made a mistake but it’s like 10%, that’s not fair.”

Dutch judgments in the case have been hailed as internationally significant in establishing that governments can be held liable if the peacekeepers they send on U.N. missions fail to protect civilians during armed conflicts.

The Supreme Court did not follow legal advice from its own Advocate General, who issued a non-binding advisory opinion earlier this year calling the 2017 Dutch judgment “irrational” and saying it “cannot be upheld.”

The case revolves around the role played by the outnumbered and outgunned Dutch U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the Srebrenica enclave in eastern Bosnia as Mladic’s Bosnian Serb forces overran the area.

It focuses on some 350 men who were among the 5,000 terrified Muslims who took refuge in the Dutch battalion’s base near Srebrenica but were expelled by the peacekeepers as part of a mass evacuation.

The Dutch forces improvised a funnel of vehicles and troops through which the Muslims left the base. As they did, Mladic’s forces picked out the men, took them away and later killed them.

In its 2017 judgment, the Hague Court of Appeal ruled that the Dutch forces’ actions deprived the men of any chance of survival. The court estimated their chance of survival if they had stayed in the Dutch compound at around 30% and said the Dutch state was liable for 30% of losses suffered by their surviving relatives. The Supreme Court lowered that number to 10%.

After overrunning Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb forces sorted thousands of Muslim residents by gender, then trucked the males away and began killing them. The bodies were plowed into hastily dug mass graves, which were later bulldozed and scattered among other burial sites in an attempt to hide evidence of the massacre.