In July 1995, well over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were separated from their wives, mothers and sisters by Bosnian Serbian army, and then killed mercilessly by the Bosnian Serbian paramilitary called ‘Scorpions’ under the command of the notorious Serbian General Ratko Mladic. The largest massacre of civilians in post-war Europe, which the International Court of Justice termed as ‘genocide’ in a 2007 ruling, took place under the nose of Dutchbat, the Dutch battalion of the UN Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) in the former Yugoslavia, guarding the UN compound in Srebrenica, which was one of the six UN ‘safe zones’ in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Even today, the tragic memory of the Srebrenica genocide continues to haunt Bosnian Muslims and all the peace-loving people around the world who share their pain and agony. On July 9 and 10, Taksim Square in Istanbul will be the site where 8,372 pairs of shoes, representing the exact number of people killed in the quiet Bosnian town in 1995, will be on display. The event commemorates the 16th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide and is part of a 'Project 8372' undertaken by the Association of Bosniak Youth to “condemn the role of the United Nations in Srebrenica Genocide.”
What happened in Srebrenica, a small town in eastern Bosnia, 16 years ago did involve top Serbian political leaders and military commanders as perpetrators of the genocide, but the indirect responsibility of the UN leadership and European powers in the deadly affair cannot be washed away. Nothing will ever bring back the thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys who perished in the process, but the pain and suffering of their widows, mothers and sisters may be lessened by bringing the Serbian leaders accused of orchestrating the genocide to task and exposing the international forces who stood by as the Serbs butchered thousands of Bosnian Muslims.
The International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICCY) at The Hague has done a wonderful job in arresting and trying dozens of Serbian leaders and commanders accused of orchestrating the Srebrenica genocide. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic died in prison while ICCY was still hearing the case of ethnic cleansing against him. Similar cases of Radovan Karadzic, the former self-declared president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and General Mladic, who was arrested last month, are being heard at The Hague.
And, now, we have the lid finally being lifted from the culpability of the Dutch, if not that of the French and the UN, in the tragic Srebrenica affair. On July 5, appeal court judges in the Netherlands ruled that the Dutch state was responsible for the deaths of three Muslim men after the fall of Srebrenica.
Relatives of a local electrician Rizo Mustafic who assisted the Dutch peacekeeping unit but was killed in Srebrenica, and the Dutch troops' local interpreter Hasan Nuhanovic, whose father and brother are also believed to have died, had lodged legal action against the Dutch state seeking damages.
The victims were among the thousands of Bosniak (Bosnian Muslims) who took shelter in the UN compound as Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Gen Mladic overran Srebrenica on 11 July. Two days later, Dutch peacekeepers forced the Bosniaks out of the compound. The court ruling said even though the Dutch soldiers were operating under a UN mandate, they were under "effective control" of top military and government officials in The Hague when they ordered the hundreds of Bosniak men and boys out of their compound.
The ruling said the three men were among the last to be expelled and by that time the peacekeepers already had seen Bosnian Serb troops abusing Bosniak men and boys and should have known they faced the real threat of being killed. “The Dutchbat had been witness to multiple incidents in which the Bosnian Serbs mistreated or killed male refugees outside the compound. The Dutch therefore knew that... the men were at great risk if they were to leave the compound," the court said in its ruling.
The appeals court's judges have ordered the government to pay compensation to the dead men's relatives, thereby opening the way for more such compensation claims. For its part, the Dutch government has always insisted that its troops were abandoned by the UN, which provided them no air support. A case launched by the group Mothers of Srebrenica against the Dutch state is now before the Dutch Supreme Court, where lawyers are seeking a referral of the case to the European Court of Justice to also challenge the immunity of the UN.
It was in April 1993 that Srebrenica was declared a safe zone by the UN Security Council. During the Bosnia-Herzegovina war 1992-95, some 34,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians were expected to be in six UN-declared safe areas; however there were only 7, 600 UN peace-keepers and 600 of them belonged to the Dutch battalion protecting the 'safe zone' of Srebrenica. When the Serbs started to attack the town, they took 14 Dutch soldiers as hostage. The hostages were released after the Dutch commanders handed over thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys to the Serbian army.
Women and children were separated from men and boys while Dutch troops looked on, and the latter taken away to sites such as a warehouse, a dam and a schoolhouse for summary execution. Thousands more who fled through the forests on, what has become known as, the “road of death” were likewise rounded up and shot. The dead were buried in mass graves.
The Srebrenica genocide remains a sensitive issue in the Netherlands, where the government fell in 2002 after a damning report by the Dutch Institute for War Documentation into the events surroundings the killings. The report blamed Dutch army officers for handing over Bosnian Muslim civilians to Serb forces despite fears of widespread killing, and the UN for failing to give the troops the support they needed to defend the local population.
However, an investigative report by Andreas Zumach of the British American Council and published in a 1997 issue of Basic Reports—a newsletter on international security policy read widely by diplomats around the world—establishes that the responsibility for facilitating the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica at the hands of Bosnian Serb army does not fall on the Dutchbat alone. UN Protection Forces command, then in French hands, and top UN officials at the time also played a devious role in the process.
The then French President Jacques Chirac played a key role in disallowing any NATO action to prevent Serbian onslaught on Srebrenica. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (who was then UN Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping) and UN special envoy to former Yugoslavia at the time, Yasushi Akashi, were informed of Chirac’s intention not to take any serious measures to prevent the genocide in Srebrenica.
In June 1995, the French intelligence service learned of Serbian preparation for an attack on Srebrenica. This information was passed on to French Lieutenant General Bernard Janvier, Supreme Commander of the UN Protection Forces in the former Yugoslavia, at UNPROFOR headquarters in Zagreb only in his capacity as French military officer, not in his role as Supreme Commander of the UN forces. During the Serbian attack on Srebrenica between 5 and 11 July, General Janvier denied five requests from the local Dutch UNPROFOR commander to call in NATO aircraft to stop the assault. General Javier has never denied these incidents. French government sources and UN officers stationed at UNPROFOR headquarters later disclosed that General Janvier received direct orders by telephone from French President Chirac not to call in NATO air forces.
Reports of a top secret evaluation meeting of the role of the Dutch UNPROFOR battalion in Srebrenica at The Hague on 1 November 1995 also shed light on the course of events. At this meeting, Dutch officers gave the following account: “On 10 July, General Janvier received a call from Paris at 20:15 while he was consulting with his staff about the escalating situation in Srebrenica. At that time, the Serb forces had overrun all UNPROFOR positions in the safe area, had entered the outskirts of Srebrenica, and were indiscriminately shelling the city with tanks and heavy artillery. General Janvier left the meeting to receive the phone call from Paris in another room, accompanied only by French officers at UNPROFOR headquarters that General Mladic did not intend to conquer Srebrenica, and rule out the request for NATO aircraft. Sixteenth hours later, Mladic had conquered Srebrenica and driven out 40,000 inhabitants.”
Information about the November 1 meeting at The Hague was later leaked to a Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, launching a criminal investigation on the grounds that the details of The Hague meeting, officially classified as a “state secret” by the Dutch government,” might be damaging to the Defense Secretary and the State of the Netherlands. These events are documented in detail by Dutch journalists Frank Western and Bart Rijis, in their book Srebrenica-Het Zwartste (the blackest scenario).
Statements by former UN Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali also support the evidence that certain Western governments had taken control, only to later blame the United Nations for the fall of Srebrenica. On several occasions after the fall of Srebrenica, Mr. Ghali made it clear that he and his leadership team were never in control over General Janvier. In an in interview with the French weekly Novel Observateur, he declared that French and British UNPROFOR generals “only followed orders from their governments in Paris and London.”
The UN headquarters in New York was informed by UN’s special envoy Akashi, weeks before the Srebrenica assault, that decisions regarding requests for NATO aircraft to defend UN safe area in the former Yugoslavia would be up to President Chirac, and that Chirac did not intend to bring into action the newly-formed rapid reaction force around Sarajevo, made up predominantly of French and British forces.
The actual course of events in Srebrenica appears to be predicted in the 19 June 1995 cable, number Z-1020 form UN’s special envoy Akashi to then Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping, Mr Annan in New York. The cable recounts Akashi’s 17 June meeting with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. According to the cable, during the meeting, Milosevic told Akashi “that he (Milosevic) had been advised by President Chirac that air strikes should not occur if unacceptable, and that he (Milosevic) did not experience the rapid reaction force to be employed at all…”
Basic Reports cited French government sources to argue that Mr Chirac had lengthy telephone conversation with Milosevic on 3, 9, and 11 June after which the Bosnian Serbs released 401 UNPROFOR soldiers taken hostage a month before the attack as “insurance” against NATO air strikes. While first-hand evidence of the content of the conversation between Chirac and Milosevic is not available, the Akashi cable strongly supports the view that France and its allies were responsible for allowing Srebrenica to be over-run.
The evidence describing the actual events at Srebrenica also raised questions about the role of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his position as Under-Secretary for Peace-keeping at the time of the attack. While he was head of the world body, Mr. Annan was asked about his silence on Srebrenica’s tragic events. He answered diplomatically by saying that “the whole international community, not only the UN, failed in Srebrenica.” The UN Secretary-General went on to say that he had “heard the allegations that Chirac gave Milosevic assurances there would be no sir strikes,” but that he “could not find any proof for these allegations.”
While the Serbian leaders and commanders have eventually faced justice at The Hague, and the Dutch justice system has held the Dutch state itself responsible for facilitating the Srebrenica genocide, the tale of Europe’s most tragic incident since the Holocaust will remain half told until the French and the UN are also made to publicly accept the responsibility for this great crime.
Copyright(C) Ishtiaq Ahmad