- By Michael Dobbs
Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality.
With the Mladic trial now due to start on May 14, it is time to move on to the painful question of international responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre. I am planning a series of posts on this topic, but I want to begin by asking a simple question: Who was responsible for the deaths of Ibro, Muhamed, and Nasiha Nuhanovic?
At one level, the answer is very simple. All three were killed by Bosnian Serb troops commanded by Ratko Mladic following their seizure of the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995. The forensic evidence is very compelling. Bones containing DNA samples from the three members of the Nuhanovic family have been recovered from mass graves in the Srebrenica area. They are among more than 6,600 people positively identified by war crimes investigators as Srebrenica murder victims.
At another level, the question becomes much more complicated, raising important issues of international law, morality, and human rights. At the time that it was captured, Srebrenica was an internationally recognized “safe area” under United Nations Security Council resolution 819. The United States and other western governments had committed themselves to the protection of Srebrenica civilians by deploying a Dutch peacekeeping battalion to the town to take over security duties from the Muslim defenders.
Like thousands of other Srebrenica inhabitants, Ibro, Nasiha, and Muhamed sought refuge in the Dutchbat base on July 11, 1995. A fourth member of the Nuhanovic family, Hasan, worked for the United Nations as an interpreter. When Srebrenica fell, thousands of other Muslim men and boys of military age had fled northwards across the mountains to government-held territory. Since he himself was employed by Dutchbat, Hasan believed that the United Nations peacekeepers offered his family the best protection from the fury of Mladic’s men.
An engineer by training, Ibro Nuhanovic was selected by the Dutch peacekeepers as one of three Srebrenica residents to meet with Mladic at a hotel in the nearby town of Bratunac on the morning of July 12. In the video below, you can see Ibro entering the hotel and being questioned by Mladic about his background. He tells the Bosnian Serb commander that he is “an ex-businessman” who ended up in Srebrenica “by accident during the war.” He speaks in a soft voice, causing Mladic to tell him to speak louder.
Immediately after the Hotel Fontana meeting, Mladic sent buses to the Dutchbat base for the evacuation of the people trapped there. The Nuhanovic family remained inside the base until the evening of the following day, July 13. At that point, Dutch peacekeepers escorted the family members that you can see in the photograph at the top of this post off the base, and handed them over to the Serbs. Hasan never saw his parents and brother alive again.
As a United Nations employee, Hasan himself was eligible for evacuation with the Dutch peacekeepers. He pleaded with the Dutchbat deputy commander, Major Robert Franken, to include the 18-year-old Muhamed on the U.N. employee list. Franken declined on the grounds that this might endanger the Dutchbat peacekeepers and their employees.
At the last moment, Franken offered Ibro Nuhanovic a choice. He could be evacuated with Dutchbat together with his older son Hasan, as one of the Muslim “negotiators.” Ibro chose to “share the fate” of his younger son, and left the base with Muhamed and Nasiha. It should be noted that the Dutch peacekeepers knew by this time that Mladic’s men were murdering at least some of their male captives.
The question is: did the Dutch have any responsibility — either legal or moral — to protect the Nuhanovic family? For a long time, the Dutch military answered “no” to that question, arguing that they did everything they reasonably could on behalf of the refugees. After a nine-year legal battle, a Dutch appeals court finally ruled last year that Dutchbat should not have turned Ibro and Muhamed over to the Serbs, and the Dutch state therefore shared responsibility for their deaths.
It was a ground-breaking verdict, the first time that a western government has been held legally responsible for the failure of a peacekeeping operation. But do the Dutch deserve to bear that responsibility alone? I will address that question in a future post.