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

Outrage at Awards for Srebrenica Peacekeepers

The Dutch defence ministry’s decision to grant service medals to soldiers deployed in Srebrenica in 1995 sets off protests in Holland and Bosnia.
By Caroline Tosh
Survivors’ groups demonstrated outside The Netherlands’ parliament in The Hague and in Sarajevo this week, as Dutch soldiers who failed to prevent the Srebrenica massacre were handed awards by their government.

More demonstrations took place outside the awards ceremony, held in a military base in Assen, in northern Holland, where protesters held aloft a 60-metre banner listing the names of 8,106 men and boys killed at Srebrenica, which were read out by the assembled crowd.

The honoured soldiers, former members of Dutchbat III, had been deployed in around the UN-protected enclave in July 1995 when it was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces who subsequently conducted mass executions.

“All of you receive today a special insignia as a visible acknowledgement . . . that in Srebrenica you had an extraordinarily difficult task," the Dutch defence minister Henk Kamp told 500 of the ex-peacekeepers gathered in the base to receive their medals.

He added that his government also wanted "to acknowledge the fact that Dutchbat has for years wrongly been held responsible for what happened in the enclave".

Former Dutchbat commander Thom Karremans, who was filmed at Srebrenica raising a glass with Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, was first to receive the service medial, said reports.

But the widespread protests at these controversial awards serve as a reminder that wounds remain raw 11 years after the Srebrenica massacre, committed at the height of the bitter 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict.

Thousands of victims’ remains are still being exhumed from mass graves following the worst civilian massacre in Europe since World War II, which the Hague tribunal described as a genocide in a ruling in 2000.

The eastern Bosnian town was declared a UN safe area in April 1993, as it teetered on the brink of falling into to hands of Bosnian Serb army.

But the 850 lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers - sent as part of the UN Protection Force, UN-PROFOR, to protect the population which had swollen to more than 30,000, as refugees poured in from the surrounding areas - were ill-equipped to do so.

On July 11 1995, 1,500 Bosnian Serb soldiers overran the enclave and bussed “the able-bodied” Muslim men and boys away to be summarily executed.

Some 450 Dutchbat troops were present when Srebrenica fell, and some - ignorant of what was to come - are reported to have helped the Bosnian Serb army separate the men and boys from their families before they were led off and killed.

Several inquiries have absolved Dutchbat of blame for the events leading up to the massacre.

A report by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, NIOD, instead pointed the finger at politicians for sending the troops on a “mission impossible” and prompted the Dutch government to resign en masse in 2002.

The Dutch troops, suggested the report, had no mandate to fight the Bosnian Serbs when they attacked the safe area and had no backup.

But some analysts in Holland strongly disagree and claim the Dutch soldiers "could have put up more of a fight". Senior lecturer in international law at the University of Groningen, Andre de Hoogh, quotes the Security Council's resolution 836 and says it clearly mandated peacekeeping troops deployed in the UN protected zones such as Srebrenica not only to defend themselves, but also to "deter attack”.

That, according to de Hoogh, "authorised them to take necessary measures" when the enclave was attacked, "including the use of force". However, he says, they chose not to.

Despite being exonerated in official reports, in a trial by media the beleaguered Dutchbat was found guilty of impotence, cowardice, and even complicity in the events at Srebrenica.

The veterans - significant numbers of whom are reported to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since returning from the failed mission - claim they have been unfairly vilified in the press.

A defence ministry spokesman said last week that the Dutch troops had asked for some form of recognition to compensate for the perceived attacks on them.

"This is not a medal for courage or for special services," said the spokesman, about the service medal - a pin inscribed with the letters “DB” for Dutch Battalion and the Roman numeral III – but “recognition that they were unrightfully judged".

In an interview with IWPR this week, Roger Vande Wetering, spokesman for the Dutch ministry of defence, said the award was intended to give the Dutchbat “a clear statement in public that they were not to blame for what went wrong over there”.

Vande Wetering says that while the Dutch government understands the “strong feelings” of the Bosnian community towards the failed peacekeepers, he stressed that it still had “a responsibility towards the people it sends out on peace missions”.

“We have to support them, when it doesn’t go as hoped,” he said.

The awards, though, have provoked outrage in many quarters.

The UK weekly newspaper the Economist branded it “provocative, even callous” to award a “medal” to the Dutch troops.

The ceremony is reported to have caused a rift between Dutch authorities and the Bosnian presidency, which is said to have complained to the Dutch ambassador in Sarajevo.

While victims’ relatives – some of whom are suing the Netherlands, along with the UN, at the Hague District Court for failing to protect civilians at Srebrenica - see the medal as an affront to those who died.

"This is a scandalous, shameful and humiliating decision. Victims and their families are additionally humiliated and offended," said Munira Subasic, head of the Srebrenica Women association, based in Sarajevo.

“Almost 10,000 people were killed because [the Dutch soldiers] did nothing to stop the massacre,” Kada Hotic of the Mothers of the Enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa organisation told IWPR this week.

Hodic, who lost 50 males relatives in the massacre, including her husband and son, said she believed the Dutch government was using the award to “ trick the public that they did everything in Srebrenica to stop the massacre”.

Dzevad Kuric, the president of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Platform in Holland, deemed it “morally wrong” for the Dutch government to award the former peacekeepers.

“The mission of Dutchbat III was to protect the people from Srebrenica. They didn’t do that,” he told IWPR.

He claimed that the award was an attempt by the Dutch government to “cleanse its conscience” for its role in failing to prevent the massacre of civilians.

Kuric acknowledged conditions were hard for the Dutch troops but insisted that while they should be entitled to therapy for the trauma they endured, they did not deserve an award.

But such a reaction misses the point, said Wiebe Arts, a historian with the Dutch Veterans’ Institute.

“There’s been no medal awarded. The ministry of defence has communicated that it’s an insignia,” said Arts, who served with the Dutchbat in Srebrenica until the spring of 1995.

This gesture is not to honour the Dutch troops, he said, but rather to help the public understand the hopeless situation they faced on that sweltering July afternoon when the enclave fell.

“It was impossible for the peacekeepers to do anything at Srebrenica. They knew it at the time, and the public knows it now as well,” he said.

Responsibility for the massacre should fall not with the Dutch peacekeepers, who “didn’t kill anybody”, but with the Bosnian Serbs, said Arts.

He warns that this week’s protests only serve to deflect attention from those believed to have orchestrated the massacre - wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who along with Mladic, remains at large since being indicted for war crimes, including genocide, by the Hague tribunal in 1995.

“The protesters should instead use their energy to go to the Bosnian Serbs and ask for Karadzic and Mladic. The Dutchbat soldiers are an easy target; a government isn’t,” he said.

While prosecutors at the Hague tribunal have indicted 20 people for crimes related to the massacre, a lack of state cooperation in the Balkans has meant that Mladic and Karadzic continue to evade arrest.

The angry scenes this week suggest the wounds of survivors will never truly heal until these two men are brought stand trial for their alleged roles in the bloody massacre of 11 years ago.

Caroline Tosh and Aleksandar Roknic are IWPR reporters in The Hague.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.


More IWPR's Global Voices