Leading article: Badges of dishonour

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The Independent Online

The massacre at Srebrenica 11 years ago is regarded not just as the most shameful episode in the civil war that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia, but as Europe's single worst atrocity since the Second World War. It is also one of the most shameful failures in the history of international peacekeeping. Those who were entrusted with protecting this Bosnian Muslim enclave failed in the most comprehensive way possible to accomplish what they had been sent to do.

The events at Srebrenica in July 1995 are well chronicled. Almost 8,000 were killed when Bosnian Serb forces overran the settlement. The Dutch peacekeepers surrendered and even assisted with the evacuation. The Serbs shot the men and boys methodically in cold blood and buried the bodies in mass graves.

The Bosnian Serb commander, General Radislav Krstic, was subsequently convicted of genocide by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague - one of the first to be found guilty of such a charge. The judge memorably described the killings as characterised by "scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history".

The terrible truth, however, is that this was a massacre that could, and should, have been prevented. The enclave had been created and international peace-keepers dispatched precisely because the Bosnian Muslim population was judged to be in danger. It beggars belief that the Dutch government has now awarded medals to the troops who so abjectly failed. Bosnian Muslim anger can well be understood.

The decision is particularly unfathomable because the initial response of the Dutch government was admirable in many ways. It was to order an inquiry and then to accept its highly critical report with dignity. So chastened were ministers by the findings that the Government called elections ahead of time. The defence minister, Henk Kamp, has justified the awards by saying that the troops had been unjustly cast in an unfavourable light. They had, he said, been on a mission impossible. And there were, of course, mitigating circumstances. The mandate was inadequate and the Dutch troops were too few, too lightly armed and out of their depth. Their request for air cover at the crucial juncture was refused by the French commander. Nor is there any guarantee that soldiers from another country would have acquitted themselves better.

Unfortunately, however, even though the ignominy was shared with the United Nations, it was primarily the reputation of Dutch troops and the Netherlands that was tarnished by Srebrenica. For the Dutch government now to revisit its verdict on that failure casts doubt on whether the lesson of this massacre has really been learnt.