When the Blue Helmets Are to Blame

International peacekeepers -- like the ones who stood by in Srebrenica -- could soon be held accountable for their actions.

What happens when international peacekeepers turn their backs on people seeking protection? Recently, a Dutch court decided that a government can be held legally responsible for the failures of peacekeeping troops it has sent abroad. For victims' families, the ruling is an important victory, one that not only identifies the peacekeepers' failures but paves the way for compensation. For countries that dispatch peacekeepers to crisis zones around the world, however, the decision could be a worrisome precedent.

Nineteen years ago this summer, Bosnian Serb forces operating near the town of Srebrenica committed the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. In all, Serb forces executed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. As the town fell, a Dutch battalion of U.N. peacekeepers assigned to protect the area fired not a single shot at the advancing Serbs. Warplanes dropped a total of one bomb before U.N. commanders decided that a military operation to save the enclave was too risky. The Dutch peacekeepers, outnumbered and outgunned, later turned over to Serb forces Muslims who were sheltering on their compound; many of these people were later executed.

There have been multiple international legal cases over what transpired in Srebrenica, most notably the trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic (who died before a verdict was reached) and Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. In 2004, international judges found Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic guilty of abetting genocide in Srebrenica. The failure of the international community to prevent the massacre also spawned a series of commissions of inquiry, including one completed by the United Nations in 1999. It concluded that the organization "failed to do [its] part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder."

For the families of those killed, the process of more precisely identifying the responsible parties and holding them accountable has been agonizingly slow and incomplete. In 2007, one frustrated group of Srebrenica victims opted to focus on the culpability of the country that sent the peacekeepers to Srebrenica -- the Netherlands. Several relatives of Srebrenica victims filed claim in Dutch court against both the Dutch government and the United Nations for the failure of the peacekeepers. The judges decided quickly that the United Nations itself enjoyed almost impenetrable legal immunity (as Haiti's cholera victims have discovered). But determining whether the Dutch government bears responsibility has proved to be more complicated. In 2013, the highest Dutch court finally decided that the government could be held responsible for some limited aspects of the failure in Srebrenica, including not protecting refugees who sought protection.

Last week's ruling followed that very narrow precedent. It did not hold the government responsible for the deaths of most Bosnian Muslim men whom Bosnian Serb forces captured and executed. Nor did it pin on the government the broad failure of the peacekeeping force to defend the town, which the U.N. Security Council had designated a "safe area" two years earlier, in 1993. But the judges did find the government liable for the peacekeepers' decision to deliver Muslims under their protection to Serb forces. Of those handed over, around 300 were executed. The court found that "cooperation with the deportation ... of the able-bodied male refugees who had sought refuge at the compound [was] an unlawful act for which the State is liable." It concluded that the Dutch troops "must have been aware of the serious danger of genocide" if the men were handed to Serb forces.

The question of whom the Dutch battalion in Srebrenica was taking its orders from has been central to the legal proceedings. At first, some judges were persuaded that the government did not have control over its forces and that the United Nations was fully in the driver's seat. That view has a certain logic: When governments offer troops as peacekeepers, they normally put them under U.N. command and control (that's one reason the United States very rarely contributes its own troops to U.N. missions). Whatever their nationality, peacekeeping troops are supposed to take orders from the mission commander rather than from national capitals.

The reality of peacekeeping is more complex. In its ruling, the court relied heavily on a several-hundred page review of the Srebrenica collapse commissioned by the Dutch government in 1996. It found that Dutch officers were in frequent contact with senior commanders in The Hague, as well as with U.N. commanders. Given that peacekeepers in fact communicated with and responded to multiple masters, the court decided, the Dutch state still had "effective control" over the peacekeepers, even if they were formally under U.N. command and control.

The new ruling adds to an array of questions about whether and when victims can hold peacekeepers to account. Adam Smith, a peacekeeping expert at the International Peace Institute, notes that the Srebrenica decision forms part of a shifting legal landscape for peacekeepers. Important developments include the cases against the United Nations for spreading cholera in Haiti, continued investigations of peacekeepers for sexual misconduct during missions, and questions about the legal rules that govern the conduct of the U.N.'s intervention brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "In combination, these issues do start to raise concerns for troop contributors," says Smith.

In Europe, where this decision will likely have the greatest impact, most countries are already reluctant participants in U.N. peacekeeping. As the Afghanistan operation winds down, some observers have wondered whether European countries might not deploy more of their forces with the United Nations. The Dutch, whose forces saw heavy combat in Afghanistan, contributed several hundred troops recently to the U.N. operation in Mali. But there are plenty of obstacles to deeper European participation in peacekeeping. European militaries have serious concerns about how the U.N. manages its operations and whether their troops can operate effectively with contingents from poorer, less well-equipped countries. At an emotional level, the still-searing experience of the U.N. mission in Bosnia -- which was largely manned by European forces -- likely amplifies that reluctance.

The Dutch court's ruling is an important affirmation that there will be consequences when peacekeepers fail at their responsibility to protect. But it will also be a reminder to troop-contributing states of the things that can go wrong when their forces don blue helmets.



The Endgame in Gaza

Can Netanyahu really demilitarize the Strip without making Hamas a partner?

Until I heard CNN's weekend interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and watched Bloody Sunday unfold with scores of Palestinian civilian deaths and 13 Israeli soldiers killed, I thought I had the Gaza thing pretty much figured out. It would end -- more or less -- the way the two previous movies had concluded.

In both 2008-2009 and 2012, Israel degraded Hamas's high-trajectory weapons; but Hamas survived and restocked its arsenal with weapons of greater range, precision, and lethality. Hamas maintained control over Gaza and even derived a few political benefits in the process. Meanwhile, the people of Gaza continued to suffer -- from both Israel's unrelenting economic blockade and Hamas's catastrophic mismanagement and fixation with its armed struggle against Israel. With the advent of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government in Cairo, intensified Egyptian pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood also pinched Gazans.

But Netanyahu has now laid out a different vision for an acceptable endgame -- the "demilitarization" of Gaza. And the precedent he cited was the U.S.-Russian agreement on removing Syria's chemical weapons, an accord he has praised several times in the past.

This is a big statement for a risk-averse Israeli prime minister who rarely lays out big visions when it comes to matters of war and peace. Is he serious? Is a demilitarized Gaza really possible? And would such a solution actually provide for more than just a temporary respite between confrontations?

Let's be clear: "Demilitarization," as Netanyahu means it, is on the far end of the outcome spectrum. This would mean a cessation of hostilities far different than in previous rounds of fighting. It would require a fundamental change in Gaza's political situation brought about either by military or diplomatic means. Given the loss of 13 Israeli soldiers on Sunday, July 20, in a single incident, it's hard to imagine that Netanyahu is prepared to do this through force of arms -- an undertaking that would require the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip for a prolonged period and the extirpation of Hamas's military and political wings. Indeed, the number of casualties on the Israeli and Palestinian sides would likely make the costs unacceptable.

It would also require someone to assume real responsibility for Gaza. A transformed and defanged Hamas is hard to imagine. But if Israel forcibly tried to dismantle Hamas as an organization, there would likely be massive casualties on both sides. And in these circumstances neither Egypt, let alone the Palestinian Authority, could ride into Gaza on the backs of Israeli tanks amid the carnage.

Demilitarization is impossible without a diplomatic solution by which Hamas agrees to give up its weapons in exchange for a fundamental change in the economic and political conditions in Gaza, perhaps a kind of mini Marshall Plan. Several Israelis, including former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, have presented variations of this concept. The model, coincidentally, is the U.S.-Russian deal to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's store of chemical weapons. In its most robust form, such a deal would see Egypt, the United States, and the Palestinian Authority -- backed up by the international community -- broker a deal between Hamas and Israel. Mofaz proposes a $50 billion fund to support economic development in Gaza.

Meanwhile back on Planet Earth.…

Of course, none of this seems even remotely possible. Hamas would have to abandon its 35-year reason for being, give up armed struggle, accept Palestinian Authority rule, and become a political party without achieving the end of Israel's occupation, let alone statehood. Someone would also have to supervise the area close to the Israel-Gaza border inside the Strip in order to ensure that Hamas didn't continue to tunnel. An acceptable international force would have to be organized to identify, collect, and destroy Hamas's weapons. All other smaller resistance groups, including Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, would need to be defanged. Israel (at least temporarily) would need to accept the reality of Palestinian unity government during the transition, and the international community -- in an uncharacteristic display of focus and commitment -- would need to step up with tons of money and technical assistance. In other words, forget it.

In the 1990s, when there actually was a real peace process rather than the Kabuki theater that passes for one today, I'm not sure even this kind of resolve was possible. I wish I had a dollar for every time some well-intentioned soul approached me with some new Marshall Plan for Gaza or the Middle East.

Perhaps the best we can hope for would be a clean cease-fire deal brokered by the Egyptians that, once accepted, might begin to provide some economic benefits for Gaza: perhaps with Qatar paying the salaries of 43,000 Hamas employees, Cairo doing more to regularize the crossing at Rafah, and the Israelis allowing more imports in and exports out of Gaza. The International Crisis Group laid out something very close to this in its most recent report.

Hamas, however, has more-ambitious demands for a fundamental change in Gaza's economic situation that it wants to take credit for delivering, including a Gaza port and airport. Long-suffering Gazans deserve this, and more. But the cruel realities of Middle Eastern politics will likely conspire to ensure they don't get it. Egypt isn't going to help facilitate a miracle on the Mediterranean when 40 percent of its own people live on less than $2 a day.

Some Israelis like the idea of two Palestinian statelets rather than one because it would preclude a negotiated two-state solution. But no Israeli government can reward and strengthen Hamas with these goodies when Hamas continues to call for Israel's destruction and arm itself for the next round. And Hamas's own willingness to preserve itself and its resistance ideology at the expense of Gaza's economic development, as well as its endless calls to fight the Israelis to the last Gazan civilian, doesn't exactly create a reality where it's a partner for good governance and development.

When it comes to Gaza, don't dream about demilitarization or economic miracles. In fact, forget the endgame. Right now, summoning the urgency, the right mediator, and a deal to stop the killing will be hard enough.

Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images