x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Peacekeepers deserve support for vital missions

A Dutch court made a wrong and damaging decision this week in holding the government responsible because blue-helmeted Dutch troops handed three men over to Bosnian Serbs killers in 1995. The real culprits in the Bosnian genocide, after the killers, were those in high places at the UN

In July of 1995 General Ratko Mladic's Bosnian Serb army overran the city of Srebrenica with its thousands of Muslim residents. Some civilians, including about 240 males of military age, took shelter in the compound of a Dutch United Nations peacekeeping unit.

What followed was a shameful failure of UN peacekeeping: 2,000 of Gen Mladic's men intimidated the 400 or so ill-supplied and lightly armed Dutch soldiers into expelling the men. They were then systematically executed, among about 8,000 Muslims murdered by the Bosnian Serb forces.

This week a Dutch appeals court overruled a lower court and decreed that the Dutch soldiers, and thus the Dutch state, were at fault in the deaths of three local men who had been working for the UN contingent and were among the last to be handed over. The case, brought by relatives of the three, is expected to open the way for many more such suits, and for demands for compensation.

Time should never be allowed to diminish the world's sympathy for the victims of this genocide and for their surviving loved ones. And just anger against the killers should continue to burn. But this decision is fundamentally unjust; the wrong people were in the dock. Further, it will impair future peacekeeping operations. What government will want to send troops into a legal ambush?

In any organisation, blame tends to run downhill. But in the Srebrenica slaughter, as in the Rwandan genocide the year before, the responsible parties - after the killers of course - were at the top of the United Nations; the men who ordered a few soldiers volunteered by well-meaning governments into impossible positions, and then failed to back them up.

To be sure, in Srebrenica there was blame enough to go around. The Dutch government of Wim Kok resigned en masse in 2002 after a report found that ministers had endangered troops by accepting a mission "to keep the peace where there was no peace". The French general in overall command was found by his government to have "seriously underestimated" Gen Mladic's intentions. And so on.

But UN peacekeeping has too often involved wishful thinking rather than robust intelligence work, adequate numbers, proper weaponry and supply, efficient decision-making and realistic terms of engagement, all underpinned by firm political will. Without all those things, peacekeeping efforts are often doomed, as are those whom they are meant to protect.