Srebrenica mothers' lawyer: Dutch "should take moral responsibility"

15th December 2007, Comments 0 comments

A hearing has yet to take place, but attorney Axel Hagedorn is already claiming a first victory for the Mothers of Srebrenica in their action against the Dutch government.

For nearly two years, Hagedorn and his colleague Marco Gerritsen have fought on behalf of 6,000 people, mainly women, from Srebrenica, Bosnia, who lost their husbands and sons in the 1995 massacre at the hands of Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic and his forces.

Hagedorn says a civil suit filed at the court in The Hague should determine the responsibility of the Dutch government and the United Nations (UN) in the Bosnian Serb atrocities in the town. In 1995 it was a UN protectorate manned by Dutch troops.

Now, months after a civil suit was filed, the court has ruled the United Nations' presumed immunity from liability should remain open pending a main trial opening in 2008.

It will now be up to that trial to decide whether the UN retains its immunity - a key point in what is a very complex and lengthy case.

"This case is a just cause," Hagedorn, of the Van Diepen Van der Kroef law firm in Amsterdam, told Deutsche-Presse Agentur dpa on Wednesday.

"We argue the Dutch and the UN violated the so-called genocide convention which says states are obliged to do the maximum to prevent genocide," he said, adding: "We think the Dutch and the UN failed to do this."

When Bosnian Serbs took over the enclave of Srebrenica in 1995, the Dutch peacekeepers' response allegedly varied between indifference and cooperation with the Bosnian Serbs.

This continued when the Bosnian Serbs separated the men from the women and children and deported them to an unknown destination. In the following days, all men - some 10,000 - were brutally killed.

Several studies have since concluded the Dutch made mistakes. However, the Dutch government always maintained their troops were insufficiently equipped and not authoritised by the UN to undertake more than they did.

The Srebrenica mothers argue the Dutch refuse to acknowledge legal or moral responsibility for what happened.

Hagedorn explained the women "primarily want recognition from the UN and the Dutch of what happened." He drew a parallel with a Dutch compromise reached with the Dutch Jewish community in the late 1990s.

Back then, the Dutch rejected a Jewish request to acknowledge legal responsibility, but agreed to acknowledge moral responsibility in the wrongs committed towards the Dutch Jews in World War II.

On that basis, the government gave 112 million euros to the Jewish community as compensation.

In the Srebrenica mothers' case, too, "acknowledgement of moral responsibility" would be welcome, Hagedorn said.

"However, the state attorney told us the Dutch do not intend to admit to moral responsibility in our case."

In 1995, Dutchbat - as the Dutch troops were known - was part of the UN peacekeeping troops. The International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, both UN courts located in the Netherlands, would thus seem ideal for a trial about the UN mission.

"The second court is merely a criminal court. The first is for states, not for citizens," Hagedorn explained.

"Theoretically, Bosnia could bring the Dutch before the court. So far Bosnia has not shown any interest in doing this."

Hagedorn indicated that here, political interests were probably involved. His law firm, he said, had discovered that the Dutch had transferred at least 500 million euro to the Bosnian government since 1995.

Since their start in June, legal procedures focused primarily on the question whether the UN enjoyed immunity - arguments that took place only through correspondence between the parties and the court.

The Dutch maintain the UN were immune and could therefore not be brought to court. Hagedorn argues the opposite. He will plead this in the trial's first hearing, expected early 2008.

Last week the court decided the matter could not be addressed separately from the proceedings - only as part of them.

Late next year the court will decide on the UN's immunity when the actual trial begins.

If the court holds the Dutch state and the UN accountable, this could have far-reaching consequences for the future international UN operations.

"I support the UN, but also acknowledge their shortcomings," Hagedorn said. "Democratic states have a division of power in three independent branches - legislature, executive, judiciary.

"The UN holds all branches in one hand. They make and execute laws, and then judge over themselves. This is wrong. The UN needs an independent court as prescribed by its 1946 Charter."

Hagedorn is prepared to take the fight to the European Court of Justice to prove the UN does not enjoy immunity, and is confident that "the European Court will rule in our favour."

He added: "In a case concerning the European Space Agency, they ruled it enjoyed immunity only because ESA gave sufficient legal remedies internally. The UN, however, lacks such a judicial system."

9 December 2007

[Copyright DPA]

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