As It Happens

Dutch must apologize for turning Muslims away from UN base in Srebrenica: lawyer

It's time for the Dutch state to apologize for the deaths of 350 Muslim boys and men who were executed by Bosnian Serb forces after being turned away from a UN base, says a lawyer for the victims' wives and mothers.

Dutch state partly liable for the deaths of 350 men and boys during Bosnian genocide, court finds

Dutch UN peacekeepers sit on top of an armoured personnel carrier on July 13, 1995, while Muslim refugees from Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, gather in the village of Potocari. (The Associated Press)

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It's time for the Dutch state to apologize for the deaths of 350 Muslim boys and men who were executed by Bosnian Serb forces after being turned away from a UN base during the Srebrenica massacre, says a lawyer for the victims' wives and mothers.

The Supreme Court of the Netherlands on Friday upheld a ruling that found the Dutch state partly liable for some of the deaths in the 1995 massacre, in which 8,000 people were killed. 

Before they were slaughtered, 350 of the men and boys fleeing Bosnian Serb forces made it to a Dutch base in a UN-designed "safe area" — but they were turned away by UN peacekeepers in the Dutch Battalion, or Dutchbat.

The court set the liability of the Dutch state at 10 per cent of the overall loss suffered, meaning that the survivors are likely to receive only a few thousand euros.

Simon van der Sluijs, lawyer for the Mothers of Srebrenica — a group of 6,000 survivors of the massacre — spoke to As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan about the ruling. Here is part of their conversation. 

You represent survivors of the siege of Srebrenica. What was their reaction to this ruling today? Did they consider it a victory?

They consider it a victory because the Dutch state was held liable by the Supreme Court for what happened in 1995 for expelling 350 men from the UN compound.

What do we know about what happened to those 350 boys and men who came to the Dutch looking for refuge that day?

They were sent off by Dutchbat from the compound that day and they were taken away with buses by the Bosnian Serbs. And in the days following ... those men were kept, were humiliated, they were tortured and they were killed in mass graves.

Members of Mothers of Srebrenica wait during the ruling on the case brought by relatives of the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. (Eva Plevier/Reuters)

The argument from Dutch soldiers has been that they were completely overwhelmed, that they were very lightly armed, faced with heavily-armed Bosnian soldiers intent on pretty much carving out an ethnically pure territory. I understand that some of those Dutch soldiers were in the courtroom today. What did they have to say?

First, about being lightly armed — if you want to compare arms, the first thing is: Are you willing to use the arms you have? Because if you're not, there is no need to compare. And the Dutch soldiers were ordered by the Dutch state that their own safety was more important.

Those soldiers, they support the mothers. And I can understand. Because when you go into the army as a soldier, I think you have higher beliefs. You think that there is something more important than your own safety. 

And when you were sent on a mission and your own ministry of defence tells you that your own safety is more important from that moment on, and the result is that 8,000 men and boys are killed — well, this makes you suffer too. Not like the mothers, but those Dutch soldiers, they have difficulties themselves now.

This is one of the reasons they support the mothers now. Because, well, they have a problem with the Dutch state too.

Members of the council of the Dutch high court C.A. Streefkerk, C.E du Perron, M.V. Polak, M.J. Kroeze and C.H. Sieburgh arrive for the ruling on the case brought by relatives of the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in The Hague, Netherlands July 19, 2019. REUTERS/Eva Plevier - RC18AACDA1D0 (Eva Plevier/Reuters)

What did the court say about what would have happened to those 350 boys and men, if they had been allowed to stay in the safe zone?

The Supreme Court ruled that if those men were not handed over they would have had a 10 per cent chance to have survived this massacre. And I don't agree on this point, because the UN compound has always been a safe zone inside the safe area. The Bosnian Serbs have always respected the integrity of this compound. They have never fired a single shot in the direction of this UN compound. So I just don't buy it.

And what does that mean in practical terms for the survivors? Does that mean the compensation that they will receive eventually will be lower?

Yes, the compensation will only be 10 per cent of the damages done.

How much does the compensation matter at this point to the survivors?

The main issue was establishing the liability of the Dutch state, and I think the mothers have succeeded in doing so. So compensation was and is only a second thing. 

It's been 24 years since the Srebrenica massacre took place. And even now, you hear about victims still being identified, reburied. In some cases, families only have one or two bones of their loved ones. What, if anything, would help these families you represent move on and heal?

What would help is if the Dutch state would really recognize what has been the role of the state at that time. And they should apologize, I think, for what happened. And not half-apologies, but frank apologies. 

Why do you think an apology would make such a difference?

At first, you just know that your husband or your son has been killed and is not there, and you don't even have a body. And you try to find out what happened, and what you always know from the first moment on is that Dutchbat was there to protect those people.

The Dutch state has always been hiding behind the UN — they were not responsible, the circumstances were to blame, everybody else's fault, but not the Dutch state. 

The Dutch state has made mistakes and is liable. And it would really help, I think, if the Dutch state would admit that they did wrong.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.