A group called the Mothers of Srebrenica wants the United Nations to be tried for its failure to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Today the group, which represents 6,000 relatives of the victims asked a civilian court in The Hague to waive the UN’s immunity. They say the UN and the Dutch state are in part responsible for the deaths of 8,000 Bosnian-Muslim men and boys since Srebrenica was a “safe area” under UN protection. There is widespread interest in this challenge to UN immunity.
When the relatives of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre brought the United Nations to court, the organisation invoked its right to legal immunity. The lawyer for the 6,000-member group Mothers of Srebrenica, Alex Hagedorn, says the UN’s immunity must be revoked.
Hiding behind immunity
“There are several reasons why the [UN’s] right to immunity should be waived. For instance, we are now facing two international laws which contradict each other: The ban on genocide and the UN’s legal right to immunity. When comparing these two laws it becomes obvious that the compelling legislation banning genocide has preference over the organisation’s right to immunity. Otherwise the ban on genocide is nothing more than an empty shell.”Mr Hagedorn says both the UN and the Dutch state failed in their task of defending the citizens of Srebrenica. Eight thousand Bosnian-Muslim men and boys were massacred by the Bosnian-Serb militiamen of General Ratko Mladic. He says it is unacceptable that the UN escapes judgment by invoking its right to immunity. Mr Hagefdorn says the Netherlands is hiding behind the UN’s immunity by saying it acted under UN orders.
The lawyer says he can understand that the right to immunity helps make the UN more efficient. If the international organisation was continually going to court its effectiveness could be undermined.
Hagedorn says that in the case of such a serious issue as genocide it is essential that an independent court be able to judge the UN’s actions. Otherwise the UN is no more than a dictatorial organisation which places itself above the law. The legislation guaranteeing the UN immunity wasn’t written with this in mind. At the time, the UN stipulated that it would set up a legal body so that civilians with grievances would have someplace to turn. However in 60 years the UN has never gotten around to setting up a legal body.
Hagedorn does not think that lifting the UN’s immunity would interfere with its work. He says an evaluation of the UN’s conduct by an independent judge would benefit the organisation.
“If the UN knew it could not hide behind its status of immunity it would proceed more carefully in conflict regions. I think it would make the UN stronger. It would have to be more careful in carrying out its mandates.”
When the court in The Hague will reach a verdict is anybody’s guess. Mr Hagedorn is prepared for years of legal wrangling; he believes the case will eventually end up at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
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