See update below – it wasn’t the UN’s World Court that heard this case.
It was one of the worst chapters in UN history, at least at the time. The failure of the UN to reinforce 100 or so Dutch peacekeepers at Srebrenica in 1995 in the fave of an advance by a far more powerful Serbian army led to the retreat of the Dutch away from a city the UN had declared a safe zone for refugees of the Balkans War — and led to the massacre of thousands at the hands of the Serbs. The survivors of the massacre sued the UN in the World Court (presumably the International Criminal Court), the very venue the UN uses to try war criminals and mete out its perception of justice, over their refusal to defend the city after encouraging refugees to flock to it. The World Court acknowledged that the UN failed to conduct itself properly, but upheld its claim of immunity:
The Court of Appeal at The Hague ruled Tuesday that a group of women cannot sue the United Nations for failing to prevent the massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995.
The court said it was impossible for the Mothers of Srebrenica to sue because of the immunity granted to the United Nations under international conventions. It said the women have other avenues to try to recover their losses.
The mothers are surviving relatives of the men and boys who died in the massacre. They wanted to sue because they believe the Netherlands and the United Nations failed to prevent the killings, the court said Tuesday. …
“The Court of Appeal appreciates that the mothers and their relatives have suffered atrocities,” the court said. “The Court of Appeal therefore comprehends entirely that they seek redress for their losses in a court of law. It ruled, however, that the interests of the U.N. must prevail in this case.”
This is interesting for a number of reasons, first and foremost as a reminder that the UN doesn’t actually do peacekeeping in war zones but status-quo management — and doesn’t even do that particularly well. The UN knew that the Serbs wanted to sack Srebrenica; after all, the Serbian Army had conducted a long siege, trapping the Dutch and prompting calls for their relief. The UN refused until after the massacres despite their own designation of the city as a safe zone, not wanting to confront the Serbs head-on in a battle, and the outnumbered Dutch finally retired from the confrontation without putting up a fight.
Their claim to immunity is also rather interesting, especially for the US. The International Criminal Court wants jurisdiction over national peacekeeping forces and their actions in the field. The US has thus far refused to join the ICC for that reason, claiming that (a) the US has sufficient oversight over its military to conduct its own investigations into wrongdoing, and (b) the ICC will get used for political purposes instead of legitimate criminal investigations. If the UN is claiming that it has immunity for military issues at the World Court, then how can it claim jurisdiction over any other nation’s military personnel?
As it happens, this ruling makes sense, since the actions of the UN should be handled through political accountability rather than a lawsuit. However, as we have seen with the remarkable number of cases involving UN peacekeeping missions with sexual exploitation of refugees, as well as with the Oil-for-Food scam that put billions of dollars into the pockets of Saddam Hussein and Western diplomats, the UN has no effective accountability. It’s one of the reasons why we should be extremely wary of giving the UN any jurisdiction at all, let alone in a criminal-court venue. The appeal decision means the UN escapes any kind of accountability for its cowardly actions that led to the fall of Srebrenica and the massacre of civilians that trusted UN promises of protection. For the mothers of Srebrenica, it’s the final betrayal.
Update: I misunderstood one critical part of this story. The Hague’s appeals took place in the Dutch court system; I assumed that The Hague was a reference to the World Court, which comprises both the ICC and the ICJ. Obviously, the Dutch decision to hold the UN immune from action is part of their own legal framework and not that of the ICC or ICJ. While the points about accountability still stand, the court decision here is significant within the Dutch system. My apologies for the misunderstanding.