AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The trial of Ratko Mladic before the Yugoslav war crimes court will reopen old wounds in the Netherlands, whose troops were defending Muslims in the U.N. “safe haven” at Srebrenica when Bosnian Serb tanks rolled in.
What followed in July 1995 was a Dutch national humiliation.
Reassured by Mladic that no harm would come to the thousands in the enclave, the commander of the lightly-armed Dutch force drank a glass of champagne with the Bosnian Serb army commander.
In the days after, around 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed and bulldozed into the earth.
The Netherlands government resigned after a report in 2002 concluded it had sent Dutch troops on a “mission impossible”.
But like other NATO members which committed troops to Bosnia during the war under the banner of a United Nations Protection Force, Dutch hands were tied by a “dual-key” U.N. mandate that effectively prohibited armed intervention in the conflict.
Mladic has been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for genocide at Srebrenica.
But mothers and widows of the victims of Srebrenica also blamed the Dutch force, accusing them of cowardice, and lawyers representing 6,000 surviving relatives of Srebrenica victims have mounted lawsuits in Dutch courts against the Dutch state and the U.N. for their failure to prevent the killings.
“The satisfaction over the arrest ... is still no match for the shame over the failures of 1995. The success still has a humiliating after-taste,” said Ko Colijn at the Clingendael Institute in a column in Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland.
The 2002 report by the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies said Dutch troops assigned to shield civilians in the enclave were confronted with “a hostage situation in which violent resistance would have ended in a bloodbath”.
They could not have attacked because of a mandate requiring them to be attacked first. On top of that, U.N. air strikes the Dutch requested did not come in time, NIOD said.
But the government-commissioned report also said the Dutch military made a deliberate attempt to “avoid sensitive issues” and cover up the reality of what happened, to avoid criticism.
Because of Srebrenica, the Netherlands has insisted that Serbia would never join the European Union until Mladic and all other Serbian war crimes suspects were in The Hague.
“We couldn’t defend the enclave ... you can’t defend that with lightly armed soldiers, against tanks and 3,000 heavily armed Serbians,” former Dutchbat soldier Wim Dijkma said after news of Mladic’s arrest reopened a painful debate.
Historians have concluded that the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia was a deeply flawed mission, the first of a new era of “humanitarian intervention”.
All NATO troops wearing U.N. blue helmets were on occasion frustrated, angered and ashamed at what the mandate obliged them to witness without intervening, until all parties eventually realised that intervention could not always be peaceful.
From this perspective a Srebrenica tragedy might have befallen any UNPROFOR contingent, and the Dutch commander in the enclave, Thom Karremans, has consistently defended his actions.
“He (Mladic) is a hardliner. A rock-hard person to whom everyone had to listen. I had that feeling also. There was no way of doing business with him, there was absolutely no room to negotiate,” Karremans said on Dutch television after the arrest.
Soldiers under Karremans also suffered from trauma.
“I really ask myself, looking in the mirror, have you been wrong, have you made mistakes? Mistakes I made, yes. I believed too much. I believed that people couldn’t be so bad,” Dijkma told Reuters. “I got really crazy about that. To be so naive.”
The NRC daily predicted that Mladic’s arrest would not close the chapter for the Dutch military. But Joris Voorhoeven, who was defence minister at the time, appeared to look forward to vindication at the trial now set to begin.
“The best political news of my career,” he said in response to Mladic’s arrest. “Finally justice.”
The Srebrenica case against the Dutch state is now before the Dutch Supreme Court, where lawyers are seeking a referral of the case to the European Court of Justice to also challenge the immunity of the United Nations.
“We want to know if the Dutch did everything they could have done,” lawyer Axel Hagedorn said. “It seems the common ground now in the Netherlands is that nothing could have been done.”
“I have my doubts about that and the Mothers of Srebrenica also have doubts about it. This shows how traumatic it is -- no one wants to get into it.”
(Additional reporting by Svebor Kranjc)
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Philippa Fletcher