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Ruling in Srebrenica massacre case could affect peacekeeping missions worldwide

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South Sudan’s Bor town on February 28, 2014 after hundreds of people left their homes due to clashes between security forces and opposition groups allied to former vice president Riek Machar. PHOTO | MOHAMMED ELSHAMY | ANADOLU AGENCY

South Sudan’s Bor town on February 28, 2014 after hundreds of people left their homes due to clashes between security forces and opposition groups allied to former vice president Riek Machar. PHOTO | MOHAMMED ELSHAMY | ANADOLU AGENCY 

By JOINT REPORT The EastAfrican

Posted  Tuesday, August 19   2014 at  11:04

In Summary

  • The judgment may have set a precedent that countries that provide troops for UN missions can be held responsible for their conduct.
  • The ruling could potentially open a floodgate of lawsuits against UN peacekeeping missions, especially in Africa, considering the failings of a number of them in the region.
  • Reacting to the ruling, the UN noted that it is too early to tell whether there will be any implications for international peacekeeping missions in future.

In July 1995 during the Bosnian war, the world watched in disbelief as the Srebrenica massacre occurred. Thousands of fleeing citizens had sought shelter in the United Nations compound when Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic overran the Srebrenica area.

In a few days, these forces outnumbered the Dutch peacekeepers, known as the Dutchbat, who bowed to pressure from Mladic’s troops and forced thousands of Muslim families out of the compound. The peacekeepers were under the command of a UN Protection Force deployed after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

Then the atrocity happened. The Bosnian Serb forces sorted the Muslims by gender, taking with them men and boys, whom they killed and buried in hastily dug mass graves. By the time they were done, approximately 8,000 people had lost their lives.

To much disbelief, the Dutch military did little or nothing to stop the massacre, given that it occurred under its watch.

Almost two decades later, and after a protracted long court battle, the Netherlands has been ordered to pay compensation for the deaths of 300 Bosnian Muslims in the massacre.

In this landmark ruling, the key question being asked is if and how this decision will affect other peacekeeping missions around the world.

In the ruling by presiding Judge Larissa Alwin of the Dutch Supreme Court last month, the Netherlands was held liable for the deaths of the 300 people who were expelled by Dutch soldiers from the UN compound, straight into the arms of Bosnian Serb forces.

“Dutchbat should have taken into account the possibility that these men would be the victims of genocide, and that it can be said with sufficient certainty, that had the Dutchbat allowed them to stay in the compound, these men would have remained alive,” said the judge.

But the interesting twist in the judgment is that it may have set a precedent that countries that provide troops for UN missions can be held responsible for their conduct.

In the ruling, the Dutch court held that there is a shared responsibility between the UN and the troop-contributing country. As long as the state has “effective control” over its troops, it may still be held responsible for the conduct of its forces even if they are still under the control of the UN.

“This is an historic ruling because it establishes that countries involved in UN missions can be found legally responsible for crimes, despite the UN’s far-reaching immunity from prosecution. People participating in UN missions are not always covered by the UN flag,” said human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, who represented the Bosnian families.

The Dutch court, however, restricted the liability to the victims within the UN compound where the massacres occurred and not those who were killed while fleeing Srebrenica.

The ruling could potentially open a floodgate of lawsuits against UN peacekeeping missions, especially in Africa, considering the failings of a number of them in the region.

In some missions, the UN peacekeepers have either abandoned the people they were supposed to protect or failed to act decisively to prevent deaths and massacres.

For example, in April 1994 in Rwanda during the genocide against the Tutsis, UN peacekeepers from Belgium withdrew from their military base in ETO Kicukiro, allowing the Interahamwe militia to massacre 5,000 Tutsis who had sought refuge in the UN camp.

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