The decision of a court to hold the Dutch state liable for the death of 300 Muslim Bosnians in the Srebrenica massacre marks the first time a UN mission has been blamed for doing nothing. It threatens to unravel the whole system of UN peacekeeping.
The judgment by the Dutch supreme court is the final decision in a protracted claim brought by relatives of three Muslim men who were expelled by Dutch soldiers from a United Nations compound during the Balkans conflict, then killed by Bosnian Serb forces.
Although the case related only to the murder of three victims, it sets the precedent that countries that provide troops for UN missions can be held responsible for their conduct.
The UN itself was not directly implicated because the court found that it was not even in touch with the Dutch contingent at the time. "The Dutch court ruling held that in the chaos of the Serb takeover of Srebrenica, UN commanders no longer had control of the troops on the ground and "effective control" therefore reverted to Dutch authorities in the Hague."
Unable to receive the customary orders to do nothing the Dutch were therefore expected to do something and so the blame attached to them. "The Dutch government resigned in 2002 after the National War Documentation Institute blamed the debacle on Dutch authorities and the UN for sending underarmed and underprepared forces into the mission and refusing to answer the commanders' call for air support."
Testifying at the trial of Bosnian Serb military and police officers charged with crimes in Srebrenica and Zepa, [Kees Nicolai, former UNPROFOR chief of staff] Nicolai described that ‘close air support’ for the Dutch Battalion deployed in Srebrenica enclave had been postponed several times in June 1995 despite frequent attacks of the Bosnian Serb forces. After the ‘hostage crisis’ in May 1995, he explained, the UN command introduced restrictive guidelines for air support. The guidelines specified that it was better for the ‘blue helmets’ to withdraw if the UN checkpoints came under attack, than to call in NATO air strikes.
The New York Times notes that the court's decision puts at risk the entire system of UN peacekeeping, a fact used as a legal defense by the Dutch government. "The court dismissed the arguments presented by the Dutch government that holding peacekeepers accountable for events that happened during their mission would deter future United Nations operations and make countries less willing to supply troops."
The UN itself cannot be sued. "Earlier in the long-running case, judges said relatives of the victims could not sue the United Nations in Dutch courts because its immunity from prosecution is a cornerstone of peacekeeping operations around the world." But the fact that participating countries can be blamed makes it harder for the international community to perform that most valuable of services, the no-op.
In computer science, a NOP or NOOP (short for No Operation) is an assembly language instruction, sequence of computer programming language statements, or computer protocol command that effectively does nothing at all, in fact it only increments the program counter by the length of the instruction itself.
The UN is the planet's leading supplier of no-ops, whose function is to mimic action while doing nothing at all. Assigning problems to the UN permits the international community to put an international crisis on ice until it falls off the radar and is forgotten forever. The no-op is widely known in American political terminology as "moving on". It is very useful.
Got a problem in Africa? The way to make it 'Move On' is put the UN on it. This has worked like a charm in the Congo, where the world's worst conflict since the World War 2 has chugged along right under the noses of the UN for decades, prompting even the left-wing Guardian to say:
After 14 years, with a budget of $1.5bn a year, and employing 20,000 uniformed staff, the UN peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the largest mission in the organisation's history. Yet the force, currently known as Monusco, is struggling for credibility. On Twitter, critics have given it the hashtag #MONUSELESS.
Peacekeepers have been blamed for standing by when rebels from the allegedly Rwanda-backed March 23 movement (M23) conquered the city of Goma for 10 days last November. It has also been accused of blurring the lines between military and humanitarian activity, and for having an appalling record in protecting the civilian population – one of its two major aims. The second is to help restoring state authority, which requires engaging with politicians and public servants with sometimes dubious motives and propping up an army notorious for human rights abuses.
#MONUSELESS? That's their JOB. The essence of the Dutch objection is that henceforward, UN peacekeepers might have to do something which would be extremely dangerous because as anyone who is familiar with the Rwanda massacre knows, the whole point was to provide a shroud under which the gomers could die unnoticed.
Ban the Hotel Rwanda clip! It's got the "N" word. And the "A" one too.
But if I were the lawyer for the Dutch defense I might have said to the court:
"Judge did you really expect that after years of retreating and appeasing on UN orders that once out of contact some Dutch sergeant, lieutenant or captain seizing the chance would say, 'now we fight! Now we protect!' Knowing, as they knew with certitude they would be denounced and left to twist in the wind by the men in New York? Did you expect after years of organized demoralization and orchestrated deception that the Dutch battalion should suddenly rise up and insubordinately refuse to go along with the program?
That would be like expecting the inmate of a whorehouse to suddenly insist on virtue after years of making a living off vice.
The truth, judge, is if the Netherlands intended to fight it would never have subordinated itself to UN command. That the government put itself under the UN was as good as saying 'let the Kosovars die'. Is there any other construction you can think of judge?
The government made a political decision to do nothing by voters who elected them to do nothing. For you did not want war judge, neither did the UN, and it was not our duty to supply it. Your province judge, is not politics. To hold these Dutch soldiers to some non-existent duty, as if they had some other duty other than betrayal is a travesty judge.
But if you are really seeking courage, find some within yourself and indict the men at the UN. Will you do it, judge? No. Blame us. We are the soft targets. We understand your apprehensions well. There are some shibboleths you cannot impeach."
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