A Dutch court has held the Netherlands responsible for the deaths of three Muslim men executed by Bosnian Serb troops in the massacres at Srebrenica.

The unexpected ruling by a court in The Hague, which comes against the backdrop of the ongoing trial of General Ratko Mladic, the man who commanded the Bosnian Serb troops during the massacre, could open the field for new suits against the Netherlands by relatives of other Srebrenica victims.

Human rights organisations said the decision was a milestone in the legal treatment of peacekeeping operations.

“This is the first time that a state is being held accountable for the conduct of its peacekeepers,” said Michael Bochenek, director of law and policy at Amnesty International.

“Previously in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere, courts have held that troops and states were immune because the UN has immunity.”

Mr Bochenek said the ruling was unlikely to deter states from contributing to peacekeeping operations. States are already aware that their troops must abide by the rules of international law during peacekeeping operations, he said.

The UN-flagged Dutch peacekeeping battalion, Dutchbat, which was charged with protecting Srebrenica, handed the three men over to Bosnian Serb troops who overran the town on July 11, 1995.

The verdict in the Dutch suit is specific to these cases, which involved men who worked for Dutchbat and thus had a stronger claim to damages than most of those killed in the massacres. But it was welcomed by relatives of other victims also involved in a suit in the Netherlands over peacekeepers’ role at Srebrenica.

The court overruled an earlier decision that neither Dutchbat nor the Dutch state could be held responsible, because they were operating under a mandate from the UN, which cannot be sued.

“Nobody expected this,” said Axel Hagedorn, the lawyer for the victims’ organisation Mothers of Srebrenica, which is suing the UN in the Dutch courts over its responsibility for Srebrenica. “This was the first time a court has said, no, you can’t hide behind the UN. It has big political implications for our case.”

The ruling dealt with a suit brought in 2002 by Hasan Nuhanovic, who worked as a translator at the Dutchbat compound, and by relatives of Rizo Mustafic, who worked there as an electrician. After the town fell, both men took refuge at the compound with their families. Mr Nuhanovic asked Dutchbat to provide a compound pass for his younger brother and father, but they refused.

Mr Mustafic and Mr Nuhanovic’s father and brother were handed over to Bosnian Serb troops and executed over the next few days. Their bodies have since been discovered in mass graves in Bosnia.

Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch argued the verdicts should encourage governments to carry out peacekeeping missions more forcefully, rather than avoid them.

“Governments that contribute forces to peacekeeping missions have a responsibility to protect those individuals in their sphere of operations, and there needs to be accountability for that,” Mr Dicker said.

The verdicts are preliminary decisions in the trial, allowing the suit to go forward. The final hearings on potential damages will take place late this year.

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