Mladic and the piano player

The photograph above is the iconic image of Ratko Mladic sipping wine with the commander of the Dutch peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica shortly after the fall of the United Nations "safe area" on July 11, 1995. Dutch colonel Thom Karremans apologized to Mladic for briefly opening fire in a last ditch attempt to deter the ...

International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia
International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia
International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia

The photograph above is the iconic image of Ratko Mladic sipping wine with the commander of the Dutch peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica shortly after the fall of the United Nations "safe area" on July 11, 1995. Dutch colonel Thom Karremans apologized to Mladic for briefly opening fire in a last ditch attempt to deter the Bosnian Serb forces as they entered the enclave. He depicted himself as a humble "piano player" performing a score devised by others.

The photograph above is the iconic image of Ratko Mladic sipping wine with the commander of the Dutch peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica shortly after the fall of the United Nations "safe area" on July 11, 1995. Dutch colonel Thom Karremans apologized to Mladic for briefly opening fire in a last ditch attempt to deter the Bosnian Serb forces as they entered the enclave. He depicted himself as a humble "piano player" performing a score devised by others.

"Don’t shoot the piano player," the Dutch peacekeeper pleaded, clearly hoping to lighten the atmosphere.

"You’re a lousy piano player," Mladic shot back, before offering Karremans a cigarette and a drink.

It now turns out that the unfortunate Karremans was under considerable personal and psychological pressure at the time he was appointed commander of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion, or Dutchbat, in Srebrenica. According to a superior officer, General Hans Kouzy, he was in the process of a messy divorce, and was not fully focused on his military duties.

Karremans left most decisions concerning the Muslim refugees to his deputy, Major Robert Franken, who adopted a legalistic, by-the-book approach. Last year, a Dutch appeals court found that both Karremans and Franken had reason to believe that the Serbs were killing at least some of the male prisoners by the late afternoon of July 13 when he ordered Muhamed Nuhanovic (see previous post) to leave the base.

The appeals court verdict, available in full here in English, paints a devastating picture of the failure by the Dutch peacekeepers to protect the refugees. It states that the Dutchbat command violated a standing order from the Dutch ministry of defense not to "send away" aid recipients if such action would expose them to "a physical threat." It also quotes a fax to Karremans from his superior officer on July 11 instructing him to "take all reasonable measures to protect refugees and civilians in your care."

The appeals court concluded that the Dutch state "acted wrongfully toward Muhamed Nuhanovic by ensuring that he left the compound against his will," an action that led directly to his death. It added that the death of Ibro Nuhanovic could be considered the result of "the wrongful actions with respect to Muhamed and may therefore be attributed to the State."

It is worth noting that other United Nations commanders reacted differently when confronted with similar situations. In August 1995, a month after the Srebrenica events, some 700 Serbs took refuge in a United Nations base in the Croatian town of Knin, after the Croatian army "liberated" the area from Serb control. Croatian generals demanded that the refugees be "screened" for alleged war criminals — the same argument used by Mladic in Srebrenica. The commander of the Canadian peacekeeping forces, General Alain Forand, rejected the Croatian demand.

United Nations lawyers ruled that the Canadian peacekeepers would be violating the U.N. Charter if they permitted the Knin refugees to be subjected to "arbitrary arrest or detention" by Croatian forces in order to be screened for alleged war crimes.

With hindsight, it seems clear that the Dutch acted shamefully in Srebrenica. But were there mitigating circumstances?

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

More from Foreign Policy

A photo illustration shows Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden posing on pedestals atop the bipolar world order, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Russian President Vladamir Putin standing below on a gridded floor.
A photo illustration shows Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden posing on pedestals atop the bipolar world order, with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Russian President Vladamir Putin standing below on a gridded floor.

No, the World Is Not Multipolar

The idea of emerging power centers is popular but wrong—and could lead to serious policy mistakes.

A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.
A view from the cockpit shows backlit control panels and two pilots inside a KC-130J aerial refueler en route from Williamtown to Darwin as the sun sets on the horizon.

America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want

Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.

The Chinese flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics at Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4, 2022.
The Chinese flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics at Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4, 2022.

America Can’t Stop China’s Rise

And it should stop trying.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on prior a meeting with European Union leaders in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv, on June 16, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky looks on prior a meeting with European Union leaders in Mariinsky Palace, in Kyiv, on June 16, 2022.

The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky

The ethical calculations are less clear than you might think.