20 January 2020

The 1995 Srebrenica Genocide: Failure to Prevent from the United Nations and the Netherlands?

Dr. Otto Spijkers and Prof. Dr. Cedric Rynaert, in collaboration with the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges, hosted a lecture on the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. Both Dr. Spijkers and Prof. Rynaert addressed the historical injustice from a legal perspective by focusing on the international and national litigation cases conducted on the historical injustice.

Dr. Spijkers commenced the lecture by providing broader historical overview to the terrible atrocity that occurred in the town of Srebrenica. Also, he elaborated on the most important international and Dutch legal procedures that are related to the Srebrenica issue. To place the Srebrenica genocide in its historical context Dr. Spijkers started with pointing to the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1992 Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republic of Serbia declared independence, which resulted in immediate violent clashes between Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims. Situated in the middle of this violence was Srebrenica, a small valley town in eastern Bosnia in close proximity to the border with Serbia. During the violence, the town became a safe place for Muslims and others that have been forcibly displaced by the war and where seeking shelter.

 A year after Srebrenica was designated as a safe area by the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), the village finds itself surrounded by Bosnian Serb soldiers. This caused the civilians to flee to the UNPROFOR compound and seek protection in Potocari. But due to a limited mandate and insufficient resources, the UNPROFOR troops – also known as Dutchbat – could do little to protect the fleeing civilians.

State responsibility

Dr. Spijkers elaborated further on state responsibility for international wrongful acts in International Law and how this consists of both attribution and breach of an international obligation. He provided examples of how the United Nations as an organization has special immunity through different articles from international law. Also, he discussed clearly about how the Netherlands as an internationally recognized state does not have that special immunity.

Breach of international obligation

After this discussion on attribution, Prof. Dr. Rynaerts talked more in depth about the breach of an international obligation and how the prosecutors used the Dutch civil law code on civil liability and European Court of Human Rights cases to make a case on Srebrenica. Also, Prof. Rynaerts pointed to the fact that the courts used the wartime situation in Bosnia to mitigate the actions of the Dutchbat soldiers since they had to make choices on the basis of limited available resources. Also, the courts took into account the unprintability of human conduct under pressure and the fact that priorities had to be made. Therefore, considering the circumstances of being surrounded by better equipped forces, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the Dutch state only had a small amount of liability.

The lecture ended with an interesting Q&A session where the constraining aspects of the UN’s immunity provisions where discussed, and we could proceed to discuss these matters further while enjoying some refreshments.