THE HAGUE -- A Dutch court has ruled it has no jurisdiction to hear a case brought by relatives of those massacred in Srebrenica in 1995 against the United Nations for failing to protect them.
But it said a civil case will proceed in September against the Dutch state for failing to prevent the killing by Bosnian Serb forces of at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys that Dutch UN peacekeepers had been charged to protect.
The United Nations invoked its legal immunity after relatives of some 6,000 victims filed a suit last year against the Dutch state and the UN in the Netherlands.
The Netherlands has said its troops were abandoned by the UN, which gave them no air support. The families' lawyers say a network of Dutch military officials within the UN blocked air support because they feared their soldiers could be hit.
"The court declares that it has no jurisdiction to hear the action against the United Nations," Judge Hans Hofhuis said.
The ruling comes as a blow to victims' families ahead of the 13th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre on July 11. Their lawyers rejected the UN claim to absolute immunity and said they would appeal.
"We never expected this case to be over in the first instance...this is only the beginning of a very interesting discussion we have to face about the UN," said lawyer Axel Hagedorn, acting for the victims' families.
Survivors are burying the remains of more than 300 newly identified victims of the massacre on July 11. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims are expected to attend the ceremony.
So far, 2,900 victims have been buried at a memorial outside of the town. Thousands of others are yet to be exhumed and identified in the area where more than 60 mass graves have been uncovered.
Munira Subasic, the head of an association of Srebrenica mothers, told Reuters by telephone: "We are all aware that the genocide in Srebrenica happened before the eyes of the United Nations and they cannot hide behind the immunity."
In November, The Hague court said it wanted to examine arguments in the case even after the United Nations invoked its legal immunity and said it would not take part.
Victims' families turned to the Dutch court for redress as Mladic and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, both wanted by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague on genocide charges over Srebrenica, are still on the run.
Srebrenica families were absent from the court ahead of the traditional gathering in Bosnia-Herzegovina to mark the anniversary of the massacre. They believe the Dutch battalion serving as part of the United Nations force bears responsibility for failing to protect unarmed people.
During the case, Dutch government lawyers argued that UN immunity was important to allow it to exercise its duties without the interference of courts in member states.
They stressed the Netherlands was helping pay for the rebuilding of Srebrenica, but not because it felt it was to blame for the massacre, and that Bosnian Serbs were to blame.
The Dutch government led by Wim Kok resigned in 2002 after a report on the massacre blamed politicians for sending the Dutch UN troops on an impossible mission.