The conduct of Dutch troops in the lead-up to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre is, and will remain, a deeply shameful moment in that nation’s history. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims had sought protection in the camp of a battalion of Dutch UN peacekeepers, in an attempt to escape the likely slaughter at the hands of Ratko Mladic’s advancing Bosnian-Serb army. The outnumbered Dutch troops – fearful of being overrun – bowed to pressure from Mladic and forced the Muslim families out of their compound. Some 8,000 men and boys were then executed in the bloodiest massacre of post-Second World War Europe.
That the Dutch battalion contributed to what the war crimes tribunal in The Hague has since classified as an act of genocide has come to be accepted by the Dutch population; after a photograph emerged of the Dutch UN commander drinking a toast with Mladic, guilt could hardly be ignored. So damning were details of the episode that a 2002 report led to the resignation of a Prime Minister. Nevertheless, today’s ruling that the Dutch state should pay compensation to the families of 300 men murdered by Mladic’s forces does not come free from controversy.
Families of the victims say many more should receive recompense, including those who fled into the forest before they were rounded up and killed. Yet it is the impact this ruling will have on future peacekeeping forces that will most concern leaders of the UN and Western governments. In its global operations, the UN holds legal immunity in all but a few, minor areas. But this case has taken the Dutch troops seconded to the UN outside their legal umbrella – and into costly accountability.
This ought not obscure the positive example set by the Dutch court. The broad principle of UN immunity is important – but there is a gathering case for more exceptions to be made. It would strengthen accountability. As this case comes to a close, the UN is still refusing to face up to overwhelming evidence that a series of basic errors by peacekeepers brought cholera into Haiti. Admitting some liability in the most extreme of cases need not bankrupt the UN. It would instead restore its moral credit.