The Dutch Supreme Court is ruling Friday in a long-running legal battle over whether the Netherlands can be held liable in the deaths of more than 300 Muslim men who were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
The Netherlands’ highest court is passing judgment in appeals against a 2017 ruling by a lower court that the Dutch government was partially liable in the men’s deaths during the bloody climax of the 1992-95 Bosnian war. The overall Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys was the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II.
The 2017 judgment was hailed as internationally significant in establishing that governments can be held liable if the peacekeepers they send on U.N. missions fail to protect civilians during armed conflicts.
However, in January, the Supreme Court’s Advocate General issued a non-binding advisory opinion calling the 2017 judgment “irrational” and saying it “cannot be upheld.”
The case revolves around the role played by the outnumbered, outgunned Dutch U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the Srebrenica enclave in eastern Bosnia as Bosnian Serb forces led by Gen. Ratko Mladic overran the area and subsequently massacred some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the summer of 1995.
It focuses on more than 300 men who were among thousands of terrified Muslims who took refuge in the Dutch battalion’s base near Srebrenica but were expelled by the peacekeepers and subsequently murdered by Bosnian Serbs. The Dutch forces improvised a funnel of vehicles and troops through which the Muslims left the base. As they did, Mladic’s forces picked out the men, took them away and later killed them.
In the 2017 judgment, the Hague Court of Appeal ruled that the Dutch forces’ actions deprived the men of any chance of survival. The court estimated their chance of survival if they had stayed in the Dutch compound at around 30% and said the Dutch state was liable for 30 percent of losses suffered by their surviving relatives.
But in the January advisory opinion, the Advocate General wrote that it could not be said that the Dutch battalion “acted wrongfully in its choice between two evils: either facilitating the separation of the men or allowing a chaotic evacuation.”
After overrunning Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb forces sorted thousands of Muslim residents by gender, then trucked the males away and began killing them. The bodies were plowed into hastily dug mass graves, which were later bulldozed and scattered among other burial sites in an attempt to hide evidence of the massacre.
A U.N. war crimes tribunal convicted Mladic in 2017 of genocide for masterminding the Srebrenica massacre and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He has appealed.