A Dutch appeals court has upheld a 2014 decision that found the Netherlands responsible for the deaths of 350 unarmed Bosnian-Muslim men who were murdered by Bosnian-Serb troops in Srebrenica in 1995. The decision—and the inaction of the Dutch peacekeepers more than two decades ago—offer lessons applicable even now.
Before getting into those lessons, a brief recap of what happened—and what didn’t—in Srebrenica may be helpful.
When Yugoslavia began to descend into the abyss of ethnic cleansing and civil war in 1991, a European diplomat declared it “the hour of Europe.” Washington took the hint and stepped aside. It would be a fateful decision. As historian William Pfaff notes, “In the Bosnian crisis, the United States didn’t act, so everyone failed to act.” In that long hour when Europe tested its soft power against Milosevic’s hard power, some 200,000 people were erased and another two million were displaced—most of them Bosnian Muslims.
Relying on diplomacy, words, and sanctions, the Europeans proved wholly unable to protect the innocents. Some will counter that Europe tried: After all, the Europeans provided most of the personnel that guarded the United Nations’ so-called “safe havens”—six Bosnian towns protected by the lightly armed and laughably misnamed UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR). Srebrenica was one of those safe areas. In 1995, it was overseen by a unit of Dutch peacekeepers.
It was in July that Serb forces surrounded, besieged, and then entered the town—in breach of UN resolutions—and demanded that women and men be separated. Overwhelmed and overmatched, the peacekeepers called for help from the UN. When that failed, they acceded to the Serbs’ demands, assured the Muslim men and boys that they would be safe in the care of the Bosnian-Serb army, and facilitated the transfer of those unarmed Muslims to their sworn enemies. The Muslim men and boys (ages 12 to 77) were trucked away to warehouses, interrogated, slaughtered—7,000 of them—and buried in mass graves.
Srebrenica would be the low point—and turning point—of the war. It was after Srebrenica that Washington finally led, finally intervened, finally stopped Milosevic’s brutal war of ethnic cleansing, finally brought the hour of Europe to a close. Srebrenica was a microcosm of the entire war: The Serbs were by and large the aggressors, the Muslims were outgunned and thus easy prey, the UN was helpless, the Europeans were feckless, and the Americans were AWOL. Only after Washington asserted itself in late 1995—by bypassing the UN’s byzantine rules of engagement, bringing American military might to bear, arming Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and leveling the battlefield—did Milosevic’s war come to an end. A U.S.-led peacekeeping force then entered Bosnia to enforce a partition, protect and separate ethnic-religious factions, and monitor postwar borders. But it was too late for Srebrenica, which would become a permanent stain not just on the Netherlands, but also on Europe and the West, which includes the United States.
That brings us to the lessons of Srebrenica.
First, a sin of omission can be as awful and indelible and destructive as any sin of commission. What Serbian militiamen did—and what the Serbians in Bosnia and Belgrade countenanced—is heinous and horrific. And it will haunt them for many decades. Likewise, what the Dutch failed to do in Srebrenica is still haunting them 22 summers later, and it will haunt them for decades to come.
The Dutch peacekeepers and their government are guilty not because they failed to stop Milosevic’s henchmen, but because they failed to try to stop them. Instead of standing up to Milosevic and Mladic’s thugs, they stood aside, Pilate-like, and allowed Serb paramilitaries to exterminate 7,000 Muslim men and boys. According to the court, they “knew that the men ran a real risk of inhumane treatment or execution.” Yet someone in the chain of command concluded there was nothing more they could do.
Even the decision that upholds the earlier charges against the Dutch government—a decision rendered by a Dutch court—reflects a shrugging response to evil. As the BBC reports, the court ruled that “the Dutch state…was not 100 percent liable, as many would have been killed regardless” and that there was “a 70-percent likelihood the male refugees would have been dragged from the safety of the base whatever the peacekeepers had done.”
That explains the disparity between the murder toll of 7,000 and the court’s decision that the Netherlands is responsible for just 350 of those murders. It also explains why the families of those slaughtered in Srebrenica have called the ruling “a great injustice.”
What if the peacekeepers had stood up to Milosevic’s murderers and simply said, “No, we will not serve as enablers for a massacre”? What if they had used what limited weapons they had to protect the innocent? What if the UN had approved the Dutch ground commander’s urgent call for NATO air support, rather than dithering? What if, when the UN failed to do what it was charged to do, the Netherlands had acted like a sovereign nation and unfettered its troops? What if the Dutch government had given its personnel the weapons to defend Srebrenica—and the authority to do what armies are trained to do? What if Dutch authorities had recognized that some things are worth fighting for and even dying for?
Perhaps the Serbs would have blinked and backed down. Perhaps they would have forced the issue and triggered a battle between right and wrong. Perhaps they would have laughed and killed everyone in Srebrenica. We will never know.
The whole episode calls to mind a timeless truth penned by Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Burke’s words are an echo of Mordecai’s to Esther: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
Dutch military personnel were there. They were in a position to do something—anything—to help the helpless. They were there for a reason. They were there to protect. And many of them wanted to do more than they were permitted to do. Hence, the decision by 200 veterans of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion to sue their own government for compensation for the trauma they have suffered since they were ordered to stand down in Srebrenica.
A second lesson: Multilateral organizations like the UN and EU are often a hindrance to action rather than an impetus, which is why U.S. leadership is so important—and why the Obama-Trump era of retrenchment, of “nation building at home,” and “America first,” is so worrisome.
As Pfaff observes, the UN and the European Community (forerunner to the EU) “proved an obstacle to action, by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.” Something similar happened in Iraq in 2002-03 and in Syria in 2011-12.
Third, in a broken world, force and the credible threat of force are the only things that prevent bad guys from doing bad things.
One cause of the Balkan debacle—and the Srebrenica massacre—was Europe’s reliance on, and misplaced confidence in, soft power. Soft power, as opposed to hard power, seeks to leverage diplomacy, multilateral institutions, and economic carrots while often eschewing military force. Sometimes it is effective; sometimes it isn’t. Sadly, after two world wars and a cold war, it appears soft power is the only kind of power some European nations know how to employ.
Words have a place and a purpose, but words also have their limits. After all, words did not protect Nanking or Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, Srebrenica or Rwanda in the 1990s, Aleppo or Donetsk in the 2010s. They did not liberate Europe or Asia in 1945. They did not preserve free government during the Cold War, or give it space to grow afterwards. And they are not defending the defenseless in our time. That task falls to “men whose values are not those of politicians or diplomats,” as military historian John Keegan observed—men who neither seek nor receive Nobel Peace Prizes, men who are willing to do more than simply write or talk about freedom and human rights.
Photo Credit: Before the reinternment of identified Srebrenica victims, July 2012. By Mikel Oibar, via Flickr.