The Dutch state has been found responsible by a court in The Hague for the deaths of three Muslim men after the fall of Srebrenica during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.
“The court ruled that the Dutch state is responsible for the death of these men because Dutchbat (Dutch UN troops) should not have handed them over,” a spokeswoman for the court said on Tuesday.
The three men were handed over to Bosnian Serb forces by the Dutch peacekeepers who were in charge of the UN-declared Srebrenica ‘safe area’ in July 1995 when the city was overrun. Up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
Relatives of a local electrician who assisted the Dutch but was killed at Srebrenica, and the troops’ local interpreter -whose father and brother also died – lodged legal action against the Dutch state, seeking damages.
In its ruling, the court said the Dutch state was responsible for the death of these men because Dutchbat should not have allowed the men to leave the safe area or fall into the hands of the Bosnian Serb forces.
“The Dutchbat had been witness to multiple incidents in which the Bosnian Serbs mistreated or killed male refugees outside the compound,” the court said in its ruling.
“The Dutch therefore knew that … the men were at great risk if they were to leave the compound.”
Failure to protect civilians
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons reported from the Hague, saying: “The judgement said the Dutch government failed in its duty of care.
“It has turned around a previous ruling which said the UN was responsible for issuing orders to the Dutch batallion. This appeal court has said the Dutch government gave direct orders to the troops and failed to protect civilians.”
The Dutch government, which has faced several lawsuits in recent years over the massacre, has always insisted that its troops were abandoned by the United Nations, which provided them no air support.
However, the court said that, while Dutch troops were initially operating under UN orders, an “exceptional situation” developed after the fall of Srebrenica.
Since the Dutch government tried to intervene in the situation, it could be held responsible for the deaths of three men, the court said.
The Mothers of Srebrenica, who represent some 6,000 survivors of the massacre, welcomed the court’s judgement.
Group member Sabaheta Fejzic said: “It’s good, it opens the way, a certain way, for over 6,000 plaintiffs represented by a team of lawyers from Mostar [in Bosnia] and from Holland in their case against the Dutch government and ministry of defence and the United Nations.”
“But the worst of all is that after everything was over, they [Dutch UN soldiers] committed the worst crime, the crime of keeping silent,” she added.
Al Jazeera’s Simmons said that the ruling was significant as it could open up the door for compensation claims.
But Geoffrey Nice, a former war crimes prosecutor, told Al Jazeera there would be a comparatively small number of cases in which the circumstances of the successful case would be repeated.
“What I think it will do is encourage people to look at the laws of many countries that are engaged in conflicts, where it is said that they had the potential to safeguard particularly civilians and they failed to do so,” he said.
“And if on examination of the laws of those individual countries, there is scope to bring claims and to compensate those who would rightfully be compensated then that can be done.”
Government lawyer Karlijn Teuben said after the latest ruling that she would have to study the decision before deciding whether to appeal.
The Srebrenica massacre remains a sensitive issue in the Netherlands, where the government fell in 2002 after a damning report by the Dutch Institute for War Documentation into the events surroundings the killings.
A case launched by the Mothers of Srebrenica group against the Dutch state is now before the Dutch Supreme Court, where lawyers are seeking a referral of the case to the European Court of Justice to also challenge the immunity of the United Nations.