Last week a district courtroom in The Hague pulled a pin out of a diplomatic grenade and tossed it into the crowded peacekeeping ‘room’.
The District Court ruled that the Dutch government was liable for the deaths of 300 Bosnian men and boys killed in Srebrenica by Serb forces.
The ruling indicated that the Netherlands was responsible because the Dutch peacekeeping force, surrounded by superior Bosnian Serb forces, led by General Ratko Mladic, had handed over the men and boys to the Serbs.
Relatives of those 300 victims will be able to seek compensation from the Dutch government after a two decade-long legal rigmarole. The story goes that in July 1995, the lightly armed peacekeepers, who were stationed in Srebrenica, were overwhelmed by the Serb forces that then took control of the ‘safe’ area around the historic city.
Retreating into their own compound, the UN troops soon found themselves taking care of about 30,000 people outside the compound and 5,000 within the compound.
Asked by Gen. Mladic to remove the 5,000 from the compound or ‘else’, the Dutch heeded his nefarious request, knowing pretty well that they had signed the poor people’s death warrants.
Legal eagle Dr Charity Wibabara, a close university classmate, said it succinctly; “this is a landmark case.”
Not only because of its ramifications on past UN peacekeeping behavior but for future behavior as well. Right here at home, this case must be taken apart foresenically by survivors of the ETO Kicukiro massacre. Nowhere else in Rwanda were the events so similar to those in Srebrenica.
For those who don’t know about the events in the ETO Kicukiro (technical school), armed Belgian blue berets formed a well-guarded perimeter around the school, protecting 2000 Tutsi from hordes of machete-wielding Interahamwe.
That is, until one fateful day when Belgian commanders decided that they’d had enough and withdrew the lifesaving troops. What followed could only be described as ‘hellish’.
I expect the good people at Ibuka, the Genocide survivors’ body, to employ the very same legal arguments that the Srebrenica families used to force the Belgian government to pay some form of restitution to the survivors of the massacre.
The Dutch case impacts Rwandans two-fold; firstly, it guides survivors on how to tackle the issue of Belgian liability and, secondly, it will govern the way our peacekeepers operate in dicey foreign warzones.
Presently, Rwanda is the sixth biggest UN troop contributor in the world, following Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Ethiopian and Nigeria.
The major difference between us and the rest of the top six is that our peacekeepers are in some of the worst places on earth, namely the Central African Republic and Darfur, Sudan.
Our peacekeepers will one day invariably face a ‘Dutch-in- Srebrenica’ moment and with the Dutch ruling, I believe that they will have less leeway to act.
When I examine the Dutch action in Srebrenica, I don’t see any malice on their part. The fact of the matter was that they were surrounded by an evil, better armed force probably willing to unleash hell on them if they didn’t do as they wished.
They had two choices; either to give in or fight the superior forces. As military men, Dutch commanders chose to save their 400 or so troops (who were their real responsibility, if we are to be honest) instead of potentially getting into a firefight with the Serbs.
And I honestly understood why they did so. It simply made military sense.
However, despite that legitimate fear the Dutch court believes that the troops should have told Mladic off. So, despite their lack of arms, Dutch justice believed that the troops should have stood and fought.
Using that logic, UN troops have a responsibility to stay and fight when civilians are at risk and they are protecting them, notwithstanding their potential lack of arms or troop numbers.
So, where does this ruling leave the UN, and more especially our own peacekeepers?
First of all, it is up to us, as troop contributing nations, to ensure that our troops are armed to the teeth when they go on peacekeeping missions. And we must insist that we have a Security Council Chapter Seven mandate, allowing us to take aggressive action instead of staying on bases like sitting ducks.
Because if we don’t insist on both things, we’ll put ourselves in a legal bind if our commanders take the kind of hard, military decision that the Dutch made 19 years ago.
Sunny Ntayombya is an editor with The New Times Publications Ltd