With the trial of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic getting underway Wednesday, the trial of his Dutch negotiating counterpart on the ground in Srebrenica—Dutchbat commander Colonel Thom Karremans—may also be getting one step closer to reality.
By Lauren Comiteau in Amsterdam
The video footage has been shown many times in the courtrooms of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). It was shot in a room in the Fontana Hotel in Bratunac, close to the town of Srebrenica, on the day after the fall of what was supposed to be a UN protected safe haven.
Several men are gathered around a table: a meek-looking Dutchbat Colonel Thom Karremans, Bosnian businessman and Muslim representative of the talks Ibro Nuhanovic, Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstic, and of course, the military leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Ratko Mladic, big, bullying and calling all the shots. “You can survive or you can disappear,” was his message to the room’s Muslims.
That was July 12, 1995, the day the deportations of the women and the massacres of some 8,000 of those “protected” men in the enclave got underway during one week of mass killings that would amount to Europe’s first genocide since World War Two.
General Krstic went on to become the first person convicted for genocide at the ICTY. Mladic, now a whisper of his former self, goes on trial Wednesday for commanding that genocide and other war crimes committed during the 1992-95 war. Nuhanovic is dead, having followed his wife and son off the UN compound they were forced to leave by Dutch soldiers. And Karremans--who by all accounts was never up for the task of commanding Dutchbat troops in the impossible situation that was Srebrenica in 1995--is one step closer to prosecution himself for delivering “the family members of our clients to the Bosnian Serb enemy.”
“I’m positively surprised by the ability of the authorities in the country to engage in this case in a constructive way,” says Liesbeth Zegveld, the attorney who brought criminal charges against Karremans and two other Dutchbat higher-ups before the Dutch courts in 2010. “In the 1990s, they pushed the case under the carpet to the extreme. But now they seem to be open to an honest and fair examination of what happened.”
That’s because last week, the country’s National Reflection Chamber decided that going ahead with the case against Karremans is feasible. “You can prosecute Karremans, it is possible,” said Mariska Cheret, a spokeswoman for the Arnhem prosecutor’s office, on the advice it received from the Reflection Chamber. “We’re going to take it into account and wait and think about it and then make a decision.”
There is speculation that their decision will be announced next month.
“It should have been done a long time ago,” says Hasan Nuhanovic, the son of Ibro Nuhanovic and one of the Srebrenica survivors to bring the criminal complaint against Karremans, Deputy Commander Rob Franken and Dutchbat head of personnel Berend Oosterveen. Although it’s up to prosecutors and not civilians to make the decision to indict, Nuhanovic and Zegveld have already successfully gotten Dutch judges to hold the state responsible for the death of his father in a separate civil suit. “I’m the only survivor of a four-member family,” says Nuhanovic, who was an interpreter for Dutchbat in Srebrenica. “It’s my duty as the only survivor to do all I can to seek justice.”
There was a point earlier this year when Zegveld was skeptical that the case would ever reach the courts. Although it appeared Arnhem prosecutors would move ahead, she saw the deferral of the case to the National Reflection Chamber for its advice as a setback. “It’s been 17 years,” says Zegveld. “How much more can you reflect?”
National Reflection what?
Zegveld had never even heard of the National Reflection Chamber before her case went before it. Not many people in the legal profession had. It has been used only in a couple of other nationally sensitive situations, including one involving Dutch Tamils. Zegveld feared any of its advice could be driven by politics. “If it’s political, you know where it ends,” she said. “But this must now be decided on a legal basis. We need a judge finally. Come on.”
Zegveld says she understands prosecutors inventing the body as a way to avoid “tunnel vision” and prevent mistakes. “But the bad thing is it is out of the public eye and it should be more in it,” says Zegveld. “Information on who’s on it and how the decision-making process takes place” should be public.
Professor Harmen van der Wilt of the University of Amsterdam is one of the several members of the National Reflection Chamber. Although he is not able to comment in detail on the workings of the Chamber, he did say it met two times in January and February of this year to discuss both the “technical feasibility of prosecuting” (such as jurisdictional issues or those dealing with statutes of limitation) and the political expediency of bringing such a case.
“It’s a very sensitive issue,” says van der Wilt. “The question for us was: Would the general society understand if we pursued a prosecution?... Because it was not really their responsibility, they were not pulling the trigger.”
Sensitive is almost an understatement to describe the mark Dutchbat’s failure to protect the people in Srebrenica has made on the Netherlands. There have been numerous commissions, reports and court cases over the issue. And every July anniversary of the massacres or big trial days like Mladic’s opening Wednesday, the national soul searching takes on epic proportions. In 2002, the Dutch government even collapsed after a damning report found its military and political leaders failed to prevent the massacres.
Although not obliged to, Van der Wilt says he believes prosecutors will take the Chamber’s recommendation “into serious consideration.” Zegveld thinks any decision to prosecute Karremans may go even higher up the political chain in The Hague, where the Ministry of Defense has a huge stake in the outcome of any decision to prosecute its high-ranking commanders. “It will send a huge notice to the world that for the first time, military personnel involved in peacekeeping operations will be prosecuted for extremely serious crimes. It will not be a minor issue--nationally and internationally,” says Zegveld.
In the meantime, the trial of Ratko Mladic—who many Balkans experts see as the ultimate planner and executor of the Srebrenica massacres—opens Wednesday to much international fanfare. When he was arrested last year, Thom Karremans welcomed the news. "I am happy for all survivors that justice is going to triumph," he said. With his own prosecution potentially looming, there are others who may now be saying the same thing.
But not Hasan Nuhanovic. “In Bosnia, we all have problems with the word happy,” he says when asked how he feels about Karremans getting closer to prosecution. (He actually holds Rob Franken responsible for the expulsion of his family from the Dutch compound.) “We don’t use the word in that context. I’m not happy or unhappy. It should have happened much earlier.”