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

Dutch UN Troops Face Srebrenica Probe

Prosecutors to investigate unit’s conduct at Srebrenica when “safe area” fell to Bosnian Serb forces.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Graves of Srebrenica victims who have been identified and given proper burials. (Photo: Kathleen Franklin/Flickr)
    Graves of Srebrenica victims who have been identified and given proper burials. (Photo: Kathleen Franklin/Flickr)

The public prosecutor in The Netherlands has decided to open an investigation into the actions of Dutch soldiers serving as United Nations peacekeepers who were present as the Srebrenica enclave fell to Bosnian Serb forces on July 11, 1995.

While Srebrenica was officially designated a UN “safe area” at the time, the Netherlands battalion stationed there, known as Dutchbat, was unable to prevent Bosnian Serb forces from capturing the area.

If the investigation results in criminal charges, it will be the first time UN soldiers have been formally held to account with regard to the Srebrenica massacre, in which some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered.

Srebrenica is is considered the single worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War.

The prosecutor’s office said in a press release that it decided to launch the investigation after receiving a formal criminal complaint in July from lawyers for Hasan Nuhanovic and the family of Rizo Mustafic.

According to that complaint, which requested that genocide charges be brought against Dutchbat commanders, Nuhanovic was working as a UN translator when Srebrenica was captured. He sought refuge at the UN compound in nearby Potocari with his parents and brother, but Dutchbat commanders forced his family members to leave on July 13. Nuhanovic’s father was found in a mass grave in 2007, as was his brother in 2010.

Mustafic, who was working as an electrician for Dutchbat, was forced to leave the UN compound and has been missing since then, reads the complaint.

Nuhanovic and the Mustafic family previously brought a civil lawsuit against the Dutch state, but that case is currently pending in an appeals court.

Liesbeth Zegveld, who represents Nuhanovic and the Mustafic family, told IWPR that she had decided to press the criminal law complaint after hearing evidence from witnesses in the civil case.

“The criminal complaint is genocide and complicity in genocide, and I for myself needed to be really convinced that this is justified,” she said. “That conviction grew over time. We also have been busy with civil proceedings and can only do one thing at a time, so we decided that this is the right step to be taken now.”

She said “exposure to the enemy is a war crime under Dutch law”.

“The crime was inserted into our criminal code after World War II, after Dutch citizens made known to the Germans that their neighbours were Jews,” she continued.

Zegveld said the investigation was a “very small, first step” and it would be months before any conclusions were reached.

Earlier this year, a Dutch court of appeals ruled that the UN could not be held responsible for failing to prevent the massacre and upheld the organisation’s immunity from prosecution. That decision was the result of a civil lawsuit brought by a group known as the Mothers of Srebrenica, which represents 6,000 relatives of victims.

In 2002, the findings of an investigation into Dutchbat’s conduct at Srebrenica, commission by the Netherlands government and carried out by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, caused a furore in the country, and led to the resignation of the then prime minister, Wim Kok. The report – the result of seven years’ research – contained scathing criticism of the country’s political and defence leaders in 1995.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.