Mothers of Srebrenica Decision: Dutch Court holds The Netherlands Responsible for 300 Deaths in 1995 Massacre
On Wednesday, a Dutch Court handed down a hotly anticipated decision on the Mothers of Srebrenica case, finding the Dutch state responsible for the deaths of 300 people who were sheltering with Dutchbat in July 1995, when the safe haven at Srebrenica fell. The English translation is available here.
This ruling means the relatives of those 300 Bosniaks will be entitled to compensation. Significantly, however, The Netherlands was cleared for the deaths of the more than 7000 other victims who were in and around Srebrenica, such as those who fled to the woods nearby.
This case follows a related decision, in which the UN was found immune from process for the deaths at Srebrenica. See the 2012 decision of the Dutch High Court here. And a subsequent decision by the ECHR confirming the UN’s immunity.
In the present decision, the concept of effective control was central to the Court’s findings. In para. 4.33 the Court cited the Nuhanovic decision and DARIO Art. 7, and defines effective control as “factual control” of the State over Dutchbat’s specific actions. (Later, in para. 4.46 the court suggests that effective control is “actual say over specific actions whereby all of the actual circumstances and the particular context of the case must be examined.”) In Para. 4.37 the Court noted that command and control of Dutchbat was transferred from the Dutch state to the UN, which took place for the purpose of a UN peacekeeping operation based on Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The court found the Netherlands responsible for the deaths of those 300 because they were within its effective control. See paras. 4.87 – 88. In contrast, the 7000 who “fled to the woods”, and according to several claimants, did so on the basis of hand signals by Dutch soldiers, were not under the effective control of the Dutch state and hence not attributable to the Dutch state. The majority of those individuals then fell to Bosnian Serbs. Paras. 4.101 – 4.106.
The ruling also indicated that the Netherlands was responsible because the Dutch peacekeeping force, outnumbered by raiding Bosnian Serb forces, had handed over the same 300 Bosnian Muslim men and boys of fighting age after Gen. Ratko Mladic, commander of the forces, ordered that they be screened for war crimes. Para. 4.212. The District Court ruling said the peacekeeping force should have known that the Muslims were likely to be killed by the Serbs.
In my view, this decision will have three implications:
- First, it will be of interest to Troop Contributing Countries, in that the determination of a national court that a state is responsible for the failure to prevent an atrocity and might be found liable for wrongs committed during a peacekeeping mission, despite an overarching UN Mandate, broadens the spectre of legal liability significantly. In this vein, it should be considered alongside the Nuhanovic decision of 2013, also rendered by the Dutch Supreme Court, in which the Netherlands was found responsible for the deaths of 3 individuals during the 1995 massacre. I blogged about this case here. On the relationship of the Nuhanovic decision to the Mothers of Srebrenica decision, see paras. 4.10 – 4.12.
- Relatedly, it indicates the relevance of shared responsibility scenarios in international law. It develops the doctrine of attribution and related concept of effective control proposed by the ILC in the Articles on the Responsibility of IOs, and indicates that both a state and an IO can share effective control, and hence, potentially, responsibility, despite the UN’s presumptive immunity. See e.g. para. 4.45 in which the Court decides it does not need to examine whether the UN also had effective control, given the possibility of dual attribution. For magisterial treatments of this topic, see the work of the SHARES research project at ACIL, Amsterdam, run by Professor Andre Nollkaemper. I note that I have a research interest in effective control, and have a forthcoming article on the topic to be published in the Melbourne Journal of International Law later this year.
- Third, the decision brings us back to a very hot topic: the scope of UN immunity. Questions of UN immunity are front and center these days because of the three pending cases against the UN involving the introduction of cholera in Haiti. An important distinction between the Srebrenica decisions, and the Haiti Cholera cases, however involves operational necessity. In the Srebrenica case, courts have been clear that the decision not to evacuate some of the Bosniacs near the safe haven fell within the context of operational necessity, which is central to the Security Council’s mandate under Chapter VII. Questions of operational necessity are considered “public” matters, which do not trigger the Art. 29 obligation to provide alternative means of settlement. The idea behind the disctinction of public / private it that immunities are meant to protect the UN from vexatious litigation. By way of contrast, operational necessity has never been raised in the Haiti Cholera cases. To see my take on this distinction see my blogs here and here.