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

Srebrenica Action in Legal Limbo

Survivors wanting to sue Dutch authorities must wait for ruling on admissibility of their case.
By Karen Meirik

A group of Srebrenica survivors said this week that they were still hopeful of being able to sue the Dutch government for damages, despite the refusal of a local court in The Hague to consider their case late last month.


Hasan Nuhanovic, a former United Nations employee whose entire family was murdered when Bosnian Serb forces overran the Bosnian-Muslim enclave in July 1995, as well as a second anonymous plaintiff and a supporting group from the Women of Srebrenica association claim that because Dutch troops serving as peacekeepers in the enclave failed to protect its population, they should he held liable.


More than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in Srebrenica in the largest massacre in Europe since World War II, but both the Dutch government and the UN have denied any responsibility.


A Dutch court in The Hague is now trying to decide whether a group of individuals have a right sue the state. Nuhanovic said that he was hoping to persuade it to allow the suit to proceed by having some Srebrenica survivors testify.


On November 27, the court refused to hear their testimony, saying it wanted to determine whether the case was admissible.


The government is arguing that individuals cannot take legal action against a state for the conduct of its soldiers serving as part of a UN force abroad.


"If the state is to be held responsible, this usually results in obligations towards another state. Not towards civilians," said Bert-Jan Houtzagers, a lawyer representing the government.


"I don't dispute the right to hear witnesses itself. Yet to do so before it is clear if the case holds any legal ground will be a waste of money and costs too much time."


However, the plaintiffs's lawyer, Liesbeth Zegveld, said she was shocked by the court's decision.


"In 99 per cent of similar cases the court agrees to hear preliminary witness [testimony]," she said. "The court obviously wasn't inclined to take this case seriously anyway. That's the only thing you can say about it."


Nuhanovic, who watched helplessly as Dutch troops handed his brother and parents over to the Bosnian Serb forces, was equally critical.


"[The court] did not go into any discussion," he said. "The only thing was jurisdiction."


Nevertheless, he said he was not too dismayed, "After July 1995, nothing can disappoint me anymore."


Zegveld said she believed the court was reluctant to take the case for political reasons.


Srebrenica is an extremely sensitive topic in The Netherlands. In June, 2003 the Dutch parliament concluded an inquiry into the fall of the enclave, whose findings were equivocal.


"The Netherlands are not guilty, but are to blame. Despite good intentions, we were not able to protect the enclave," concluded Bert Bakker, head of the committee that led the parliamentary inquiry.


Zegveld has appealed the court's decision not to hear the Srebrenica survivors' testimony.


The appeals decision is expected by February.


Karen Meirik is an IWPR contributor in The Hague.


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