Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ANALYSIS: Srebrenica Report Soft On Dutch Failings

The latest investigation into the 1995 massacre of Muslims in a UN "safe haven" has brought about the resignation of the entire Dutch government and a top army general, but it still lets the troops off rather lightly.
By Othon Zimmermann

By labeling the Dutch mission to Srebrenica a "mission impossible", the inquiry into the worst massacre in Europe since the Second World War failed to fully address the military's responsibility for the atrocity.


The report, published on April 10 by Dutch Institute of War Documentation, NIOD, investigators, says the government of The Netherlands gave its ill-prepared and lightly armed troops an impossible task in supporting the UN mission in Bosnia.


But although the entire Dutch cabinet resigned on Tuesday, and a top army general on Wednesday, it is not clear whether the report will ignite further debate over the responsibility of the Dutch military for failing to stop the massacre.


Several findings in the report raise serious questions about the quality of the 7,600-page document. Ultimately they could have a negative effect on attempts to establish the truth about events surrounding the death of around 7,500 Muslims, most of them men, in a week of bloodshed in July 1995.


The report's overall tenor is that the Dutch battalion in Srebrenica known as Dutchbat could neither have predicted nor done anything to stop the Bosnian Serb army, VRS, killings in and around the United Nations-declared "safe area".


It says the Dutch government failed to properly assess the situation on the ground in advance. There was a lack of military intelligence. The force was demoralised by the killing of its soldier by a Muslim. The Serb attack was a surprise. It was impossible to predict a massacre. The UN mandate was limited. All these factors are blamed for what is widely seen as Dutchbat's disappointing conduct.


Hasan Nuhanovic, a translator for Dutchbat, whose parents and brother perished in the massacre, castigates the report as a whitewash. "Dutchbat was an accomplice to genocide. They should investigate accusations of criminal deeds by Dutch soldiers, indict them, and bring them to court," he said.


Claims about a lack of military intelligence and Dutch surprise at the Serb attack appear astonishing given that Srebrenica was under constant siege for three years before the massacre took place. Dutchbat, NIOD says, had a mandate to return fire only in self-defence, and could not have offered Muslims armed protection at their compound in Potocari.


Trapped by their "bitter dilemma", their only alternative was to assist the "evacuation" of the enclave's Muslim population, which was separated by sex and placed on buses under VRS control.


Describing events in the report, Major Rob Franken, deputy Dutch commander in Srebrenica, said Dutchbat did not participate in the business of segregating the men from the women but "didn't interfere either". Acknowledging "the danger of excesses" by the VRS, Franken said the Dutch could not have predicted mass murder. The report concludes that the deportation of the town's population "was essentially a hostage situation in which any violent resistance would have provoked a blood bath".


Bearing in mind the Serbian army massacre in Vukovar, eastern Croatia, in 1991, it is hard to understand how the Dutch could have dismissed the possibility of mass murder in Srebrenica. However, the finding with the most immediate international implications is almost certainly the one which exonerates Belgrade from any discernible part in the killings, laying all the blame at the feet of the VRS commander, Ratko Mladic.


This could have a direct bearing on the trial for genocide in Bosnia of the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, now proceeding at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The events in Srebrenica are listed on his indictment. One of Milosevic's advisers in court, Zdenko Tomanovic, told a Dutch newspaper that "some parts [of the report] are in favour of Milosevic".


On the other hand, the finding that VRS "responsibility cannot be denied" may strengthen the prosecution cases against Radislav Krstic, who is appealing against his 46 year sentence, and against three other VRS officers, Vidoje Blagojevic, Dragan Obrenovic and Dragan Jokic, who are to be tried for their roles in Srebrenica.


Mladic himself is still on the run, the last sighting being reported in Montenegro. Controversially, the report claims the VRS did not plan the massacre in advance but describes it as a reaction to military activity by the Muslims of the Bosnian Army's 28th division after July 11. The NIOD fails to explain how enough weapons, transport and most importantly fuel - almost impossible to find in the region at the time - was found quickly enough to kill 7,500 people in a matter of a few days.


In The Netherlands, the two most explosive conclusions are the accusation that the then Dutch army chief, General Hans Couzy, tried to cover up the negative aspects of his country's involvement in Srebrenica, and the declaration that the minutes of the Srebrenica debriefing by the participants of the Unprofor operation back in 1995 were inadequate.


There have been repeated accusations over the years that the UN and Dutchbat acted irresponsibly, panicking and making a speedy departure a priority, while failing to report, as the NIOD research concludes, the likely consequences in terms of human rights violations of their departure.


The findings have caused outrage in The Netherlands, triggering the entire cabinet's resignation. Frank de Grave, defence minister since 1998, was the first to reconsider his position. "If the military investigation was sloppy, then it was already a very serious matter, but if the military has deliberately tried to control the flow of information and to avoid being questioned on sensitive issues, then I'm hardly able to be responsible to parliament," he said.


After De Grave went, neither Prime Minister Wim Kok nor Jan Pronk, who was also in the cabinet in 1995, could remain. Most political parties now favour a special parliamentary investigation that will question all the witnesses, including cabinet ministers, under oath.


The army's chief-of-staff general Ad van Baal resigned on Wednesday but it is uncertain whether other military actors in the Srebrenica tragedy will be held to account for their actions.


The chairman of the Dutch Peace Council, Mient-Jan Faber, who recently published a highly critical report of both the Dutch government and Dutchbat, wondered "why nobody is capable of saying: 'We were wrong, Srebrenica was our responsibility. We are sorry'".


Othon Zimmermann is the political correspondent for Algemeen Dagblad in The Netherlands. Mirna Jancic is IWPR's assistant editor.