Toronto Star

Apr. 16, 06:21 EDT

Dutch government quits over Srebrenica

Leaders, UN share blame for 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims, report alleges

By Marcel Van De Hoef
Associated Press
Toronto Star

AP Photo/Amel Emric
Bosnian Muslim woman Fatima Begovic, 53, cries as she watches former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic during his trial Thursday, Feb. 14, 2002 in a refugee center for Srebrenica widows in Tuzla.

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
One of four clothed skeletons lies on a hilltop just west of Srebrenica Sunday, Feb. 4, 1996.

AP Photo / Sava Radovanovic
The shadow of a refugee is seen through a banner with names of Srebrenica victims during a protest in front of the Dutch embassy in Sarajevo, Thursday, April 11, 2002.

AP Photo/Serge Ligtenberg
Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok speaks to reporters after the resignation of his government, Tuesday April 16 2002.
Genocide trial resumes (Apr. 8)
Warrants issued for associates (Mar. 31)
Milosevic loses release appeal (Mar. 27)
How Milosevic plays the media (Feb. 24)
War crimes trial may turn tables (Feb. 18)
Olivia Ward at The Hague
UN Milosevic indictment
Guardian special report: Yugoslavia War Crimes
UN War Crimes Tribunal
Radio B92 Belgrade
THE HAGUE (AP) - The Dutch government resigned today over a report criticizing its role in Europe's worst civilian slaughter since the Second World War - the 1995 massacre in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica.

Prime Minister Wim Kok took the letter of resignation to Queen Beatrix, accepting responsibility "in the name of the victims and survivors" for peacekeeping failures in Srebrenica. Some survivors called it an insignificant political gesture.

With elections set for May 15, the resignation has little practical effect. Kok's ministers remain as caretakers until a new government takes office.

Last week's report by the respected Netherlands Institute for War Documentation confirmed what many Bosnians suspected all along: Dutch peacekeepers did little to prevent Serb forces from rounding up Muslims who had sought refuge at an area declared "safe" by the United Nations. Some 7,500 Muslims were killed.

Kok told parliament the time was overdue for a political price to be paid, nearly seven years after the Srebrenica debacle.

"The international community is anonymous and cannot take responsibility in the name of the victims and survivors of Srebrenica. I can and I do," he said. "I decided to offer my resignation and the entire cabinet followed.

"The Netherlands does not accept blame for the gruesome murder of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in 1995," Kok said, "Rather, the Netherlands accepts partial political responsibility for the circumstances in which they happened."

In Bosnia, survivors spurned the Dutch government's decision.

"I want justice - and it's not done by the resignation of ministers," said Hasan Nuhanovic, 30, a Bosnian Muslim who lost his parents and brother in the massacre. "I want to see justice done in the courts."

"They should have resigned ages ago," Sabaheta Fejzic, a 50-year-old Muslim who recounted how her son was dragged away. "They will never wash the guilt off their faces."

Sefket Hafizovic, the mayor of Srebrenica, said the resignations meant "the government confessed its responsibility for what happened in Srebrenica."

"There is no collective responsibility, but there is a collective obligation to disclose the names of political and military individuals who are responsible for what happened," he said. "Every future Dutch government must remember its obligation to Srebrenica."

Kok was prime minister in July 1995 during the events in Srebrenica, but it was two other ministers who forced the government to consider a dramatic response to the report. Environment Minister Jan Pronk, who was development co-operation minister in 1995, and Defence Minister Frank de Grave, who was not then in the cabinet, said accepting political responsibility was the inevitable consequence.

Kok's successor as Labour Party chief, Ad Melkert, said Kok's decision was more than symbolic.

"It was his personal courage that made him make a choice now" and accept the consequences "to restore credibility in national politics as well as international politics," he said.

After nearly six years of research, the institute concluded that political leaders had carried out an "ill-conceived plan" intended to boost Dutch international prestige. Unprepared troops were sent into a conflict to carry out a "mission impossible" and defend some 30,000 refugees from Serb forces in the surrounding hills.

Some 200 lightly armed peacekeepers could do little more than stand by while Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic ordered the segregation of men and women. The women were deported and the men and boys were hauled off to execution sites where they "were gunned down like beasts," the report said.

The Dutch military command had not provided the mandate needed to respond to 1,500 Serb attackers, and the United Nations had declared Srebrenica a "safe zone" without defining what that meant, it concluded.

Political analyst Galen Irwin questioned the timing of the Tuesday's resignation, less than a month ahead of elections.

"I don't understand why it had to be today, why it happened anyway," he said. "If Pronk wants to step down he can do so, but why do the others need to resign as well? I don't see how that helps anybody."

It was the second time the three-party coalition government resigned in the nearly eight years it held power.

Copyright © 1996-2002. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.