Michael Dobbs

Srebrenica and the failures of the U.N.

Srebrenica and the failures of the U.N.

I met today with Hasan Nuhanovic, a former translator for Dutch peace-keepers in Srebrenica, whose entire family was murdered by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic. For the last sixteen years, Hasan has been waging a lonely campaign to force the Dutch government to accept at least some responsibility for the deaths of his family members. Earlier this summer, in a precedent-setting decision, a Dutch appeals court finally ruled in his favor.

Of all the tragedies that occurred in Srebrenica, the Nuhanovic case probably best illustrates the failure of the United Nations and the international community to live up to its own promises. When Mladic’s forces overran the U.N. "safe area" in July 1995, Nuhanovic’s family took refuge inside the Dutch military compound, along with several thousand other refugees. Convinced that a massacre was about to take place, Hasan tried to persuade the Dutchbat deputy commander, Major Robert Franken, to include his brother Muhamed on a list of locally employed U.N. staff.

Playing it by the book, Franken refused, an act that effectively stripped Muhamed of the last semblance of international protection. The Dutch major made an exception for Hasan’s father, as he had negotiated with the Serbs, but Ibro Nuhanovic refused to abandon his youngest son. The two men were murdered three days later at a mass execution site at Branjevo military farm, some thirty miles away from Srebrenica. It took Hasan fifteen years to find out what happened to them. His mother, who had also taken refuge in the Dutch compound, was killed in a separate execution.

In an historic decision, the Dutch appeals court finally ruled last July that Dutchbat commanders should not have turned Muhamed and another man over to the Serbs. Hasan hopes that the case will reopen the whole question of international responsibility for what happened at Srebrenica. This week, a group of Dutch lawyers flew to Sarajevo to interview other survivors of the massacre to determine whether they have a convincing case against the Dutch government.

"For a long time, international institutions refused to dig below the guilt of Mladic and the people around him," Nuhanovic told me. "The top Bosnian Serbs would be put on trial but no one else." In order to win his case, he says, it was necessary for him to prove that the "Dutch battalion forcibly expelled my family from the compound in a situation in which they were in obvious danger…The Serbs did not enter the compound. They stayed outside the compound. The Dutch delivered the people inside the compound to them."