Soul-searching at The Hague

At first glance, The Hague seems a strange choice of location for a war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The capital of the Netherlands is a model of tranquility and tolerance, a world away from the vicious bloodletting of the Balkans. The main complaint one hears from inhabitants of The Hague is that life ...

548372_dobbs_02.jpg
548372_dobbs_02.jpg

At first glance, The Hague seems a strange choice of location for a war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The capital of the Netherlands is a model of tranquility and tolerance, a world away from the vicious bloodletting of the Balkans. The main complaint one hears from inhabitants of The Hague is that life is too boring and predictable. Visitors are impressed by the cleanliness of the streets and the fact that everything seems to work -- from the high-speed rail system to the automobile-free lane that make Dutch cities a bicyclist's paradise.

Amidst all this peace and prosperity, it is easy to forget that this part of Europe was consumed by ethnic hatred and violence within the lifetimes of some of its older inhabitants. The house where Anne Frank hid out from Dutch (not German) policemen hunting down Jews is just around the corner from the placid canal scene in Amsterdam photographed above. It has now become the third most popular tourist destination in the city, after the Van Gogh museum and the Rijskmuseum, attracting a constant throng of tourists snaking around the bloc.

More recently, the Dutch have been engaged in a bout of very public soul-searching over the failure of a Dutch peacekeeping battalion to prevent the massacre of 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica in July 1995. The Dutch soldiers were humiliated when the Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic occupied the United Nations "safe area" that they had been entrusted to their supervision. In August, a Dutch appeals court ruled for the first time that the government of the Netherlands bore at least some responsibility for the failure to protect the Muslim population.

At first glance, The Hague seems a strange choice of location for a war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The capital of the Netherlands is a model of tranquility and tolerance, a world away from the vicious bloodletting of the Balkans. The main complaint one hears from inhabitants of The Hague is that life is too boring and predictable. Visitors are impressed by the cleanliness of the streets and the fact that everything seems to work — from the high-speed rail system to the automobile-free lane that make Dutch cities a bicyclist’s paradise.

Amidst all this peace and prosperity, it is easy to forget that this part of Europe was consumed by ethnic hatred and violence within the lifetimes of some of its older inhabitants. The house where Anne Frank hid out from Dutch (not German) policemen hunting down Jews is just around the corner from the placid canal scene in Amsterdam photographed above. It has now become the third most popular tourist destination in the city, after the Van Gogh museum and the Rijskmuseum, attracting a constant throng of tourists snaking around the bloc.

More recently, the Dutch have been engaged in a bout of very public soul-searching over the failure of a Dutch peacekeeping battalion to prevent the massacre of 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica in July 1995. The Dutch soldiers were humiliated when the Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic occupied the United Nations "safe area" that they had been entrusted to their supervision. In August, a Dutch appeals court ruled for the first time that the government of the Netherlands bore at least some responsibility for the failure to protect the Muslim population.

Like Americans, Europeans are experiencing a period of soul-searching about whether they are on the right track. The crisis over the Euro has undermined the confidence of many Dutch, Germans, and French — not to mention Greeks and Italians — in the benefits of a unified European economy. Yet in one, often overlooked, respect, the European project remains an extraordinary success. Even if the economy slips back into a full-scale recession, it is very difficult to imagine a resumption of the pogroms and strife that tore the continent apart just sixty years ago.

For all its faults, a unified Europe remains the best model for the squabbling nations of the former Yugoslavia. Eventual membership of the European Union has served as a powerful inducement to the governments of Serbia and Croatia to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal, and arrest and hand over suspects like the Bosnian Serb leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, and the Croatian general, Ante Gotovina. The Hague and Amsterdam may seem a long way from Sarajevo and Zagreb and Belgrade — but they are all part of the same continent.

This week, I am travelling to Sarajevo and Srebrenica, in an attempt to understand the "sources of evil." I will keep you posted.

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. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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