Remembering Srebrenica 25 years on
By Thomas Munns
In July, crowds gathered at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in Bosnia and Herzegovina as they have done every year since July 1995 to commemorate the victims of what remains the only genocide on European soil since the Holocaust.
Today, Srebrenica retains a heavy, overhanging air
Despite this apparent significance, most people in the UK are likely to be only vaguely aware of its 25th anniversary this year. Relative temporal and geographical proximity make it feel remote: we simply do not think of such atrocities happening in our vicinity or in our lifetime.
For this reason, it is vital that we remember Srebrenica and reinvigorate our efforts to mitigate the ongoing effects of similar atrocities elsewhere.
The former president of what was then Yugoslavia, Marshal Tito, once exercised a vital hold over the region’s societal cleavages of religion, nationality and politics. His death in 1980 left a vacuum in which these divides grew ever deeper and more intense.
The relatively homogenous republics of Slovenia and Croatia met with little resistance when they declared independence in 1991. Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, was the most divided of Yugolslavia’s republics, split between three major groups: Catholic Croats, Bosniak Muslims and Orthodox Serbs.
It came as no surprise therefore, when the results of its independence referendum were declared in 1992, that the country descended into a chaos more visceral than that seen in the other new republics to the north. Supported by the central Yugoslav government in Belgrade and led by Radovan Karadžić, Bosnian Serbs took up arms against the fledgling independent state, igniting a brutal civil war. Of course, given the heavy involvement of Belgrade, the extent to which this was truly a ‘civil war’ remains tenuous.
As the violence raged, thousands of Bosnians became internally displaced persons having been refused asylum in neighbouring countries in contravention of non-refoulement obligations under international human rights and asylum law. They were directed towards six ‘safe areas,’ declared as such by the UN Security Council.
Srebrenica – the failure of the international community
Their establishment followed the promise by UN General Philippe Morillon to the inhabitants of Srebrenica (the first safe area to be designated as such) that: ‘you are now under the protection of the UN. I will never abandon you.’ His words still haunt the international community today.
In reality, the safe areas were often overcrowded and lacked basic medical supplies, food, water and sanitation. Equally, in a war where the permanent removal of targeted groups constituted the ultimate aim of aggressors, concentrating these groups in small, publicised areas made them especially vulnerable.
The UN further aided the work of genocidaires by providing only meagre protection in the form of a small battalion of peacekeepers who were wholly unequipped for combat and unsure of their mandated role.
Militarily superior Serb forces soon surrounded the UN base at Potocari (a small village just outside of Srebrenica) where vast numbers of refugees had travelled in the hope of falling under the direct protection of the Dutch battalion of peacekeepers.
A number of men and young boys, resigned to their fate should the enclave fall, joined what became known as the ‘Put Smrti’ or ‘Column of Death.’ Carrying what little arms and supplies they could, this was an ultimately doomed attempt to slip past the Serbian lines through the mountains towards Tuzla, a more stable safe area to the north. Very few completed the journey, the rest were caught and executed.
The Serbian commander, Ratko Mladić, gave an ultimatum to those at Potocari, to surrender or ‘disappear.’ At 16:15 on July 11th 1995, UN Colonel Karremans chose the former, leaving Mladić to parade victoriously through the town. He claimed the victory for Greater Serbia, stating, ‘here we are… in Serb Srebrenica.
On the eve of yet another Serb holiday, we give this town to the Serb people as a gift… the time has come to take revenge on the Turks [Muslims] in this region.’ An estimated 8,373 Bosniak men and boys were systematically executed by Bosnian Serb forces in a matter of weeks.
Today, Srebrenica retains a heavy, overhanging air. The houses of those murdered remain untouched and empty, the local population a fifth of its pre-war total.
The former UN base has become a museum whose sobering entrance reads ‘Srebrenica – the failure of the international community.’ A cemetery dedicated to the victims lies across the road, the peaceful uniformity of its seemingly endless rows of gravestones only broken by those of the newly discovered and interred victims marked out by their temporary, green frames. This year, nine more were laid to rest.
Tragically, the war ended later that year with reports and footage of the events at Srebrenica becoming the catalyst for greater NATO involvement. The establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) soon followed.
It was there, in 2017, that Mladić was sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was joined by Karadžić and numerous other Serb leaders, all found guilty thanks to the testimony of survivors as well as co-perpetrators who recounted stories of how they were commanded to execute unarmed men, women and children.
In 2019, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands upheld a ruling of the Hague Court of Appeal which decided that the Dutch state was at least partially responsible for elements of the genocide.
The decision was based on two factors. Firstly, in evacuating the Bosniak Muslims out of the safe area, the Dutch peacekeepers allowed the Serbs to channel them through a sluice. This allowed for a much more straightforward and easy separation of male refugees bound for execution. The second factor was that they did not offer the 350 male refugees still in the UN compound at the time of its capitulation the opportunity to remain.
Had they been allowed to do so, their survival was still a possibility, albeit a remote one, but when handed over to the Serbs the likelihood of survival became virtually non-existent. The Supreme Court set the extent of the Dutch State’s liability for the deaths of those 350 victims at 10%, reduced from the lower court’s initial ruling of 30%.
Despite the relative disappointment felt by those bringing the case, it remains an exceptionally rare achievement for a judgment to be made against those involved in UN peacekeeping missions.
Indeed, the case against the UN itself was dismissed only due to the international organisation’s inherent immunity. Nevertheless, back in Bosnia itself, the recurring sentiment of survivors and family members of victims is one of derision towards the international community for its continuing failures.
Atrocities occurring today and the suffering of those involved – from the Rohingya in Myanmar to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China – will forever resonate with those in Bosnia.
Fortunately, the ICTY and its sister tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, led to the formation of the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998 where, for example, claims of genocide in Myanmar are currently under investigation.
We owe it to the victims and future generations to remember Srebrenica
Remembering Srebrenica implies both supporting the victims of war in their battle for justice and calling out those who seek to obstruct the same. President Trump’s indefensible and ongoing attacks against the ICC for its investigation into American wrongdoing in Afghanistan represents an example of the latter.
His administration’s simultaneously aggressive and evasive actions against the rule of law must be actively condemned if we are to prevent future suffering.
Another incumbent president we should be wary of is Milorad Dodik, the Serb representative in the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. To this day, he, along with many others in the region of the Former Yugoslavia, deny that any international crime occurred, stating that ‘if a genocide happened then it was committed against Serb people of this region.’
The false rhetoric of Dodik, Trump and their supporters only serves to undermine global peace building efforts and the achievement of post-conflict justice.
This is the legacy of Srebrenica. Only by reminding ourselves of its stain on our collective conscience can we invigorate us towards mitigating the impact of contemporary atrocities.
Thomas Munns specialises in International Law and Governance, particularly international human rights and criminal law