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Bosnia: Report On Massacre At Srebrenica Condemns Dutch Military 'Errors'

  • Don Hill

A long-awaited investigative report issued today by the Netherlands Institute of War Documentation says that a series of avoidable errors by Western and Dutch political leaders and Dutch army commanders permitted Bosnian Serbs to massacre 7,000 or more Muslims who had taken shelter in the UN safe haven of Srebrenica in July 1995. The Dutch Interchurch Peace Council says the report's revelations are likely to astonish and dismay the public in the Netherlands.

Prague, 10 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The second week of July 1995: War rages in Bosnia. Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic leads a powerful Serb advance. An estimated 30,000 terrified Muslims take refuge in and around the enclave of Srebrenica, which the UN has declared a safe haven protected by Dutch peacekeepers. The Serbs take away thousands of Muslims from outside the enclave.

On 11 July, Mladic's forces enter the enclave itself, where some 8,000 Muslims are huddled. The Serbs separate the Muslim men and boys from the rest and take them away. The world learns later that Mladic's forces massacred up to 7,000 people in the incident.

In the seven years since, the Dutch public and the world has been haunted by one question: Why did the Dutch troops wearing the blue helmets of UN peacekeepers fail to protect the people who had fled to them for protection?

The Netherlands' government and army said from the beginning that there was nothing the small Dutch military contingent could have done. But public outcry forced political leaders to go further. In the fall of 1996, the Netherlands Institute of War Documentation was commissioned to investigate the humanitarian disaster. The commission came with no deadline, a condition that led some critics to charge that Dutch authorities were trying to put off the time for facing their failures.

That time, however, arrived today. After six years, the institute made public its findings.

The thrust of the report is that the blame for the massacre at Srebrenica starts at the highest levels of the Serbian government of then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic -- now standing trial at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague -- and his dream of a Greater Serbia. But the report also places heavy blame on Western political leadership, the Dutch government, and the UN.

The Dutch military contingent, known as Dutchbat, comes in for blame too, but the report says it had been placed in an impossible position.

In one long, telling paragraph, the Netherlands Institute of War Documentation summarizes its findings.

"Dutchbat was dispatched

-- on a mission with a very unclear mandate;

-- to a zone described as a 'safe area' although there was no clear definition of what that meant;

-- to keep the peace where there was no peace;

-- without obtaining in-depth information from the Canadian predecessors in the enclave;

-- without adequate training for this specific task in those specific circumstances;

-- virtually without military and political intelligence work to gauge the political and military intentions of the warring parties;

-- with misplaced confidence in the readiness to deploy air strikes if problems arose; and

-- without any clear strategy for leaving."

Surprises in the report are few.

The Dutch public had already heard that the day before the disaster began, Serb General Mladic had asked the Dutch commander if the Dutch could evacuate the Muslims from the Srebrenica enclave and that the commander had ignored the opportunity. The Dutch had also heard that their troops -- fearing a humanitarian disaster in the chaotic approach of the Serbs as they ejected Muslim men from the enclave -- took over and demonstrated Dutch efficiency in accomplishing the ejection themselves, unwittingly collaborating in genocide.

But the War Documentation Institute report made the horrors official. Dion van den Berg, who conducted an unofficial investigation of Srebrenica for Holland's Interchurch Peace Council, says he expects the Dutch to be astonished and dismayed by the contents of the report. Van den Berg said the Dutch prize their worldwide reputation for humanity and respect for international law.

"I think this is really what made this an extremely black page in contemporary history for the Netherlands, because we do see ourselves as being in the forefront of promotion of human rights and international rule of law."

John Clarke, a specialist in peace operations and a professor at the U.S. George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, says that a failure in political judgment and clarity lies at the root of what happened at Srebrenica.

"I would like to say that all of this goes back to the problem that the UN confronted in engaging in what was by any definition -- any modern definition -- a peace-enforcement undertaking, using the rules that apply to peacekeeping operations. And there's an important distinction between peacekeeping and peace enforcement."

The Interchurch Peace Council's Van den Berg says that when Serbs pressed troops of other nations during this period, the troops -- operating under the same rules of engagement -- resisted. The Dutch, however, did not.

"We simply did not. So if you kick a French solider, he will kick you back. If you slam a British one, he will slam you back. If you do it to a Dutch one, he will step aside."

But Clark, the Marshall Center expert, says that is an overly harsh judgment.

"This is not uncommon in multinational peace operations undertakings, that there are different national interpretations of the same sets of rules of engagement. So it is not uncommon that one country in a muscular fashion will carry out their rules of engagement, and another country will interpret them in a more benign [way]."

The institute report says that the failures of people at the top continued long after the killing was done. It concludes that high-ranking Dutch army officers tried deliberately "to limit the flow of information and, where possible, to avoid sensitive issues." The report says that this final failure -- of candor -- exacerbated the scandal.

(The full text of the Netherlands Institute of War Documentation's report can be found at http://www.srebrenica.nl.)

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