Emerging Voices: Responsibility of the Netherlands for the Genocide in Srebrenica–The Nuhanović and Mothers of Srebrenica Cases Compared
[Otto Spijkers is an Assistant Professor of Public International Law at Utrecht University.]
This post compares the recent judgment of the District Court in The Hague in the case of the “Mothers of Srebrenica” with the judgment of the Dutch Supreme Court of last year in the Nuhanović case. I will try not to repeat what Kristen Boon wrote about the case in an earlier post.
Both judgments deal with the legal responsibility of the Netherlands for the death of (some of) the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. When the so-called “safe area” of Srebrenica fell into the hands of the Bosnian Serbs, the Dutch UN peacekeepers all left the area. Hasan Nuhanović was permitted to leave with them, because he had worked for the UN, but the UN peacekeepers refused to take the relatives of Hasan Nuhanović as well. Hasan’s brother and father were subsequently killed, together with thousands of other Bosnian Muslims. Most of the victims were situated outside the compound over which the Dutch peacekeepers exercised effective control. Even those Bosnian Muslims that managed to enter the compound, just before the fall of Srebrenica was a fact, were later surrendered by the Dutch peacekeepers to the Bosnian Serbs. Almost all of them were killed.
Nuhanović argued that the refusal of the Dutch UN peacekeepers to save his relatives constituted a wrongful act, attributable to the State of the Netherlands. The Mothers of Srebrenica argued that the refusal of the Dutch UN peacekeepers to save all Bosnian Muslims within the so-called “mini safe area” constituted a wrongful act, attributable to the Netherlands. This is the area where most people fled to after the city of Srebrenica had fallen into the hands of the Bosnian Serbs. This mini safe area consisted of the compound in Potočari and the surrounding area, where deserted factories and a bus depot were located (para. 2.35 of Mothers of Srebrenica judgment).
In Nuhanović, The Dutch Supreme Court held that the same conduct could in principle be attributed both to the Netherlands and to the United Nations. In reaching this decision, the Court referred to Article 48 of the ILC’s Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations (2011, DARIO). In the Mothers of Srebrenica case, the District Court reached the same conclusion (para. 4.34)
Since the UN was not party to the Nuhanović-proceedings, the Supreme Court could look only at the rights and responsibilities of the Netherlands. The Mothers of Srebrenica initially involved the UN in the proceedings as well, but the Organization effectively relied on its immunity (this led to some landmark judgments by the Dutch Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights), and thus the case continued without the UN. In Mothers of Srebrenica, the District Court explicitly rejected the position of the Mothers that, given the immunity of the UN, the rules on attribution should be interpreted more “broadly,” as otherwise the Dutch UN peacekeepers would be placed “above the law” (para. 4.35). At the same time, one cannot help get the feeling that it played a role.
With regard to attribution, the Supreme Court in Nuhanović based its decision primarily on Article 7 DARIO. This provision states that the conduct of an organ placed at the disposal of an international organization by a State must be considered to be the conduct of that international organization, when the organization has effective control over the conduct. The Netherlands argued that Article 6 DARIO was the relevant provision, and not Article 7. Article 6 DARIO states that the conduct of an organ of an international organization is attributable to that international organization. The argument of the State was thus that the peacekeepers were a UN organ. This is also the view of the UN itself. But the Supreme Court followed the ILC Commentary to DARIO, according to which a battalion of peacekeepers is not a UN organ, because the battalion to a certain extent still acts as an organ of the State supplying the soldiers. Important in this assessment is the fact that the troop-contributing State retains disciplinary powers and criminal jurisdiction over its peacekeepers.
Interestingly, the Dutch Supreme Court also referred to Article 8 of the ILC’s Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (2001, ARS). Strictly speaking, Article 7 DARIO says nothing about the attribution of conduct of an organ placed at the disposal of an international organization by a State to that State. The Article deals exclusively with the responsibility of international organizations, such as the UN. All it says is that, if the international organization does not have effective control over the conduct of the organ, then it is not responsible for that conduct. But that does not mean that, by definition, this makes the State responsible in such cases. In theory, it could very well be that neither of the two is responsible. And so to complete the picture, the Dutch Supreme Court relied on Article 8 ARS. According to this provision, the conduct of a group of persons shall be considered an act of a State if the group is in fact acting under the effective control of that State in carrying out the conduct. This provision was meant to make it possible to attribute acts of persons not formally part of the State system to the State in exceptional circumstances.
One may wonder why the Supreme Court did not instead make use of Article 4 ARS, according to which the conduct of any State organ shall be considered an act of that State. If peacekeepers are not UN organs, then it would be logical to consider the peacekeeping force as a State organ instead. Peacekeepers are not the mercenaries, militants or bands of irregulars for which Article 8 ARS has been designed. But if we follow the Dutch Supreme Court, the peacekeepers are nobody’s organ; and whoever happens to be in effective control of them at the relevant time, is responsible for their actions.