The Big Question: Why are Dutch soldiers being sued for the massacre at Srebrenica?

Why are we asking this now?

Relatives of the dead have brought a civil action alleging that the Dutch state is liable for the deaths of 8,000 Muslim civilians who were executed when Bosnian Serb forces overran the town during the Bosnia War in July 1995. It was the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War. The case, which has been three years coming to court, is being heard in The Hague this week. Relatives have demanded $1bn compensation.

What happened?

Srebrenica was a UN safe-haven where thousands of Bosnian Muslims from surrounding villages had gathered for protection by UN peacekeepers from the Dutch army in 1995. But when Serb forces attacked, the Dutch soldiers put up little resistance. The Dutch forced the Muslims out of a UN military base in the town and handed them over to Bosnian-Serb troops. The women, boys and old men were deported. But men of fighting age, 16-60, were rounded up by Serbian troops and paramilitaries under the command of General Ratko Mladic and massacred.

Why didn't the Dutch repel them?

There were just 400 lightly armed Dutch infantry – no match for thousands of Serbs backed by armour and artillery. The 10sq km area was impossible to defend with small arms and so few troops. That said, the Dutch denied Bosnian Muslim fighters the return of weapons they had surrendered to the peacekeepers, although they could not have defended Srebrenica for long in the face of a concerted attack.

Instead, the Dutch Commander, Colonel Ton Karremans, urged the Bosnians to withdraw from defensive positions south of Srebrenica where he believed that Nato aircraft would soon be launching air strikes against the advancing Serbs. But the air strikes never came and the Serbs took 30 Dutch soldiers hostage.

Why weren't there Nato airstrikes against the Serbs?

Because the Nato HQ in Sarajevo said the request for close air support had been submitted on the wrong form. By the time it was resubmitted, Nato planes had returned to base in Italy to refuel. It has also been said that senior Dutch military officials over-ruled the request, fearing their soldiers could be hit by "friendly fire". So Colonel Karremans did a deal, exchanging about 5,000 Muslims who had been sheltering at the Dutch base at Potocari in return for the Dutch hostages. He was filmed drinking a toast with General Mladic, who promised that the Muslims' safety would be guaranteed if they handed over their weapons.

A few days later, the Dutch Blue Helmets were ordered by their government to leave Srebrenica. Mladic was later witnessed supervising the executions.

Did the Dutch know that people were to be murdered?

They certainly knew that there had been a few summary executions. Dutch troops witnessed definite signs that the Serbs were murdering some Bosnian men. One saw an actual murder and reported it to a United Nations military observer who was impeded by Serb troops when he went to investigate. But the Dutch could have had little idea of the scale of the carefully orchestrated mass executions which followed. Men were held in schools or warehouses and then loaded on to buses or trucks and taken to isolated killing fields. There, they were taken off the trucks in small groups, lined up and shot. The crime was labelled a genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia set up by the UN to try war crimes committed during the conflict.

What do the Dutch say?

There was much soul-searching in the Netherlands when the truth emerged. An official Dutch report found in 2002 that the government had sent its peacekeepers on an "impossible" mission. The entire Dutch government resigned.

But the Netherlands insists its troops were abandoned by the UN, which had liability for the acts of the Dutch battalion. "The Dutch state made available soldiers for the peacekeeping mission, to keep apart fighting parties," its lawyers told the court. "The fact they didn't succeed does not mean they are liable for the atrocities." Only the UN, they argued, should be liable for compensation. More controversy was provoked in 2006 when the Dutch government awarded those who served in Srebrenica an insignia in "recognition for their behaviour in difficult circumstances".

So was it the UN's fault?

The UN admitted in a report issued by the secretary general in 1999 that it had failed adequately to protect the Muslims of Srebrenica from mass murder. But it said that none of its officials could be held responsible and invoked its legal immunity.

What do the Serbs say?

At the time they argued that they attacked the town because its safe-haven status was being abused by the Muslims to launch counter-offensives against Serb forces and that the UN was failing to stop this. But Dutch troops say there was no evidence for this beyond the odd raid on Serb villages to find food for the besieged town after the Serbs had refused access for humanitarian convoys.

A report by the government of Republika Srpska exonerated its troops but later Serb officials acknowledged that their security forces planned and carried out the mass killing. In 2004 Paddy Ashdown, the UN's High Representative in the area, forced the Republika Srpska government to investigate. It produced a report which confessed that 8,731 men were missing and 7,800 were known to have died in the planned mass murder. Its president issued an official apology.

What do the relatives of the dead say?

That their loved ones were "exposed to the enemy" in contravention of Bosnian law, European law, the Geneva Treaty and the international treaty on genocide. They accuse the Dutch of negligence saying "they had a humanitarian assignment, but acted contrary to their instructions".

What happened to the killers?

In April 2007, a Serbian war crimes court sentenced four members of a paramilitary group to a total of 58 years in prison for executions in Srebrenica. General Radislav Krstic, who led the assault on Srebrenica with General Mladic, was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal of aiding and abetting genocide and was jailed for 35 years. Former Serb president Slobodan Milosevic, accused of genocide for crimes which included the Srebrenica massacre, died while on trial in 2006. Mladic is still at large.

Were the Dutch really to blame for the Srebrenica massacre?

Yes...

* They bungled the military operation to hold off the Serbs by not calling in Nato airstrikes in time

* They refused to re-arm the Bosnian Muslims as the Bosnian Serbs moved on Srebrenica

* They were naive in handing over Muslim refugees to Serb commanders falsely promising them safety

No...

* Serb political leaders with genocidal policies and a ruthless Serb military are the real villains

* The United Nations did not give sufficient backing to the handful of Dutch troops on the ground

* Dutch troops did their best but their "impossible mission" was doomed to failure

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game