The Dutch Supreme Court has upheld the partial liability of the Netherlands for the deaths of around 350 Bosniak Muslims in Srebrenica, who were expelled from a United Nations base and subsequently murdered by Serb forces in the July 1995 genocide.
“Dutchbat [troops] acted unlawfully in the evacuation of 350 men,” the court ruled. “They took away the chance of the men to stay out of the hands of the Bosnian Serbs.”
The court, however, reduced the amount of damages relatives of the murdered men are eligible to claim from the Dutch state, lowering the percentage of liability in a 2017 ruling from 30 percent to 10 percent. Survivors are now likely to receive only a few thousand euros.
It said peacekeepers had only a “slim” chance of preventing the deaths of the men. “The Dutch State bears very limited liability in the ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’ case,” the Supreme Court said. “That liability is limited to 10 percent of the damages suffered by the surviving relatives of approximately 350 victims.”
Two years ago, a lower court had concluded that the Dutch forces’ actions deprived the men of any chance of survival; had they stayed in the compound, they would still have had a 30 percent chance of surviving.
The ruling concludes two decades of litigation, filed by the Mothers of Srebrenica association, which had sued for compensation.
In March 1994, 400 lightly-armed peacekeepers of Dutchbat, the Dutch battalion, were sent to Srebrenica under UN command to protect the enclave which had been declared a “safe area”.
But on July 11, 1995, Serb forces, led by convicted Bosnian Serbian former commander Ratko Mladic, overran the enclave, leading to Dutchbat’s withdrawal to a nearby compound.
Over 5,000 panicked refugees had sought refuge in the UN compound, but the peacekeepers who were outnumbered and outgunned forced out approximately 350 boys and men from their fenced-off compound.
Dutch forces improvised a funnel of vehicles and troops through which Bosniaks left their base, only to be picked out by Serb forces, trucked away and subsequently executed.
Their bodies were then bulldozed and dumped in numerous mass graves by Serb forces, in an attempt to conceal evidence of genocide.
Over the course of six days, Bosnian Serb forces and Serbian paramilitaries systematically killed more than 8,000 Bosniaks in Srebrenica, ruled as an act of genocide by international courts.
Thijs Bouwknegt, of the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide told Al Jazeera that what happened in Srebrenica has been a subject of a huge debate in the Netherlands since 1995.
“Up until this day, it’s a matter of concern for the Netherlands but also for the peacekeepers,” Bouknegt said.
“Last week some of the Dutch peacekeepers who were actually involved in this case are also suing the state saying that the Dutch state put them in a situation which was unmanageable and they actually couldn’t do anything.
“The knife cuts at two edges in the debate in the Netherlands.”
While it is rare for a state to be held liable while on a peacekeeping mission, previous court rulings have found the Netherlands to be partially liable for the genocide in Srebrenica.
A Dutch court originally held the state liable for compensation in 2014. Three years later, the appeals court upheld that decision after an appeal by the Mothers of Srebrenica association, before it was referred to the Supreme Court.
In January, the Supreme Court’s advocate general called the 2017 judgment “irrational”, writing that the Dutch battalion could not have “acted wrongfully in its choice between two evils: either facilitating the separation of the men or allowing a chaotic evacuation”.
The case of Srebrenica has previously provoked introspection for the Netherlands.
In 2002, the then-Prime Minister Wim Kok and his government resigned, acknowledging its failure to protect Bosniaks in the enclave, following a scathing report that blamed the Dutch government and senior military officials for failing to prevent the genocide.