Speech by Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the gathering of Dutchbat III veterans

Ladies and gentlemen,

Since watching the moving three-part documentary about Dutchbat III, there’s one sentence that has stuck in my head: ‘Where was the world?’. It’s a question that says it all. About what you went through at the time and what, even 27 years later, still feels like yesterday for many Dutchbat veterans. And for your families too of course – the vital home front.

It is the same feeling I had when I got the chance to meet with many of you in Amersfoort in October 2015. These conversations are etched into my memory. Especially that recurring theme of powerlessness, a maddening inability to do the very thing you joined up to do: protect people and defend our democratic values. And that sense of being cut off from the outside world, abandoned by everyone. And then afterwards, you were the target of easy recriminations, from critics who were safe and sound here in the Netherlands.

So yes, I understand that question very well: where was the world? And today we can’t help but think of another situation: where do we stand now, with the people of Ukraine suffering under brutal Russian aggression? How painful is it that war has returned to our continent and that war crimes are apparently again being committed just a few hours by plane from here?

And this thought immediately confronts us with the dreadful fate of over 8,000 men and boys who were murdered in cold blood after the fall of Srebrenica. Where was the international community when they needed protection? The answer is as upsetting as it is blunt.

The world failed them, in the most terrible way. For over 8,000 men and boys, there was no protection, no safe haven. And we in the Netherlands will be forever connected to them by history. Today, too, the memory of the victims is with us. And their families are in our thoughts. Today, and every day.

On this day, you have come together as Dutchbat veterans, to catch up with and support one another, and share old memories. This is not only valuable; it is also profoundly necessary. Of course, each of you has their own memories, experiences and ways of coming to terms with the past. But for many of you, Srebrenica remains an open chapter. The lack of recognition is something you feel every day. Recognition of the fact that your mandate, your equipment and the military support you received during your mission were all inadequate. You were sent out into the field with an assignment that ultimately proved impossible to carry out. While at your own compound there came a point when there was a lack of even the most basic necessities.

But there was also a lack of recognition and appreciation once the mission was over. You simply did not receive proper aftercare once you returned home. There was too little understanding for the impossible position Dutchbat III had been put in and the heart-breaking, split-second choices you had to make in the heat of the moment. And you were not given adequate support from government leaders and the military leadership, when you faced a barrage of unwarranted criticism. Obviously, there’s no such thing as a flawless mission. But only one party was and is guilty of the fall of the enclave of Srebrenica and the ensuing genocide: the Bosnian Serbs, not Dutchbat III.

The government feels responsible for that lack of recognition, and I want to be crystal clear about this today. I have come here to offer you that recognition in a tangible form, with a sum of money for every Dutchbat III veteran and with the awarding of the Medal of Merit. But I am also here to recognise your service in words, in the form of this statement. Even 27 years later, some words have yet to be uttered. It is an oft-noted fact that the Srebrenica mission took place under a UN mandate. But that does not alter the Dutch state’s special responsibility for the circumstances in which you were deployed, the way you were treated upon your return and the lack of support given to Dutchbat III when it was wrongly subjected to so much public criticism. Therefore, today I apologise on behalf of the Dutch government to all the women and men of Dutchbat III. To all of you here and to those who are not with us today. With the greatest possible appreciation and respect for the way in which Dutchbat III kept on trying to do the right thing, under very difficult circumstances, even when that was really no longer possible.

Veterans, ladies and gentlemen,

There were two things that you certainly did not lack, either during your deployment or afterwards. The first is a sense of camradery and solidarity, which is also palpable today. No one understands you like you understand each other. The second is an enduring, deeply felt concern for the victims and their families. Through countless initiatives and public statements you have shown that Srebrenica is not a closed chapter. The pain and troubling memories do not just go away. But by confronting the past together, by finding the words to describe everything that happened, both acts and omissions, we gradually come closer to healing, closer to each other, closer to the victims and their families. Let us underscore that today with a minute’s silence for the dead of Srebrenica.