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

Srebrenica Resurfaces in Holland

New evidence on the Srebrenica massacre fans debate over actions of Dutch peacekeepers’.
By Karen Meirik

A document published by IWPR proving Serbian involvement in the Bosnian Serb operation to overrun Srebrenica has revived debate about the Netherlands role during the massacre.


The Dutch parliament was just concluding the final debate on the matter when IWPR released the July 10, 1995 order from the Bosnian Serb interior minister directing a police commander to move troops, including members of Serbia's police, to the Srebrenica area. The commander, Colonel Ljubomir Borovcanin, was subsequently indicted by the Hague war crimes tribunal for his alleged role in the massacre. More than 7,000 men and boys from Srebrenica were killed in July 1995 while under the protection of Dutch peacekeepers.


The document links former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to the atrocity since he was the supreme commander of Serbia’s police force. He has denied any part in actions carried out by the Bosnian Serbs.


For the Dutch it raises questions about their own troops’ actions. “If the Muslim offensive on July 10 was important enough to make the [Bosnian] Serb troops ask for reinforcements, then why didn’t Dutchbat [the peacekeeping battalion from the Netherlands] draw the same conclusion?” asks Marijke Vos, a Green party member of the Dutch parliament who has a long commitment to the issue.


She says that she is determined to ask further questions in parliament about why the Dutch troops charged with protecting Srebrenica did not respond to rapidly-changing events with the same speed that attacking Serb forces did.


Vos’s questions are unlikely to be enthusiastically received. The day before IWPR published the document, the Dutch parliament wrapped up an investigation into Srebrenica by concluding that while the Netherlands had a moral responsibility towards the victims, its troops were not guilty of the fall of the enclave or the horrific events that followed.


Defence minister Henk Kamp went so far as to demand full rehabilitation of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion.


Serious objections to the minister’s suggestion were immediately expressed by the Interchurch Peace Council (IKV), an association of churches that has been active in the Srebrenica debate.


An IKV spokesman told IWPR that the newly published document confirmed its earlier opinion that the peacekeepers did not react appropriately to Bosnian Muslims’ attempts to defend themselves. Dion van den Berg, IKV’s Srebrenica expert, said the Dutch soldiers had made an agreement with the Bosnian Muslims to work together to defend Srebrenica. “Why didn’t the parliamentary inquiry give more attention to this?”


Social Democrat Bert Bakker, who headed the parliamentary committee on Srebrenica, disagrees. He said that there was no formal agreement between the Dutch and the Muslims to defend the enclave, but rather an “unofficial understanding” that observation posts would be handed over to Muslim fighters should Dutch soldiers have to retreat.


“I think the Bosnian Serbs took the counteroffensive of July 10 very seriously,” he said. “They knew American weapons had been flown in. They must have concluded the Bosnian army was not as weak as they thought before.”


Bakker said that although the new document did raise questions about the Dutch involvement, it would not make sense to keep re-opening the debate and it would be better to have a broader international inquiry once the Milosevic trial is over.


Nor does the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, NIOD, which issued 7,000-page report on Srebrenica last year that resulted in the Dutch cabinet standing down, see a need to re-examine the peacekeepers’ actions.


“Dutchbat was not really aware of a Muslim counter-attack – it was not an offensive, mind you. The terrain was much too rugged,” Dick Schoonoord, a military historian and former Dutch Royal Marine officer who worked on the report, told IWPR.


The NIOD report found no evidence that Belgrade was involved in the massacre, and Schoonoord said the document uncovered by IWPR did not change that conclusion.


“How can we be sure these Serbs weren’t actually volunteers from Serbia and were therefore outside the Yugoslav chain of command?” said Schoonoord. “And as for Serbian regulars – what was the exact command-and-control relationship in this case between the Republika Srpska Ministry of the Interior, the Serbian Ministry of the Interior and Milosevic, even if overall responsibility rested with the latter?”


Renowned Milosevic biographer Adam LeBor also said that he still does not believe that Milosevic ordered the massacre, “Deployment and use of Serbian interior ministry police in military situations in Bosnia and Srebrenica, even with Belgrade's or Milosevic’s knowledge, does not imply or mean that they were ordered by Belgrade or Milosevic to massacre thousands of prisoners of war.”


He added that doing so would not have fitted with Milosevic’s political objectives at that time, “He was losing diplomatically, and was ready to end the Bosnian war, as is clear from his behaviour at Dayton later that year. Why would he want a ghastly event like Srebrenica to take place? It would not benefit his political and diplomatic strategy.”


One thing is clear. The document seems to have raised more questions about the role Belgrade played at Srebrenica than it answers. Some will no doubt be answered as more evidence surfaces in the Milosevic trial.


“The discovery of this document as well as some of the recent testimonies in the Milosevic trial emphasize the importance for Belgrade as well as Sarajevo to open their archives,” said Bakker.


Karen Meirik is a freelance journalist in the Netherlands.