On July 11, 1995, at the height of the Bosnian war, Serbian paramilitary forces and the Army of Republika Srpska killed more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslims, mostly men and boys, in the town of Srebrenica, inside a United Nations protected “safe area.” The incident came to be known around the world as the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II. Today, 6,000 white graves line the massive Srebrenica-Potocari cemetery in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Another 135 bodies will be buried this year.
Twenty years on, Bosnia remains a divided country, still in limbo, unable to move forward. Reconciliation means restoring relations and uniting all people for the common good under conditions of mutual respect. This means a united country, which some leaders of Republika Srpska, one of the two self-governing entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, have proved they don’t want.
For example, the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, one of the most outspoken Srebrenica genocide deniers, has called the massacre, “the greatest deception of the 20th century.” “We cannot and will never accept qualifying that event as a genocide,” Dodik said in a 2010 interview with the Belgrade daily, Vecernje Novosti.
Such rhetoric makes reconciliation unlikely. The outright denial of the Srebrenica genocide is a barrier to peace.
Last month, Great Britain released a draft of a United Nations resolution to commemorate victims of the Srebrenica massacre and those who suffered on all sides, to encourage “further steps towards reconciliation.” The proposed resolution, which mentions “genocide” 35 times, has touched off a firestorm. Dodik, who regularly warns of Republika Srpska’s secession, threatened to ask Russia, a traditional ally of orthodox Serbs, to veto the resolution. Originally slated for a vote yesterday before the UN Security Council, the resolution was rescheduled for today after intense negotiations among the major parties, reportedly because of a threatened veto by Russia. [Editor's note: In today's vote, Russia vetoed the resolution.]
Republika Srpska’s prime minister, Zeljka Cvijanovic, has called the proposal “an attack” on the autonomous Serb Republic. Serbian politicians including Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic have branded it “anti-Serb.” In a letter to the U.N. Security Council, Serbian authorities argued the resolution would raise ethnic tensions and further destabilize the region. In response, Russia has proposed an alternate resolution, which broadly condemns war crimes committed in former Yugoslavia but does not even mention Srebrenica, let alone recognize the massacre as genocide.
But in order for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia to make real progress toward regional reconciliation, all parties must first acknowledge the truth. Srebrenica has long been internationally recognized as an act of genocide, including by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice. The Hague Tribunal has charged numerous Bosnian Serb war criminals with genocide including former military commander Radislav Krstic and former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, as well as former president of Republika Srpska Radovan Karadzic and military leader Ratko Mladic, who are currently on trial.
In a 2004 comprehensive inquiry authorized by Bosnia’s Human Rights Chamber, the Commission on Srebrenica confirmed mass atrocities and called on the Republika Srpska leaders “to vow to the victims of Srebrenica and apologize to their families.” Yet, the Bosnian Serb leaders continue to ignore the mounting evidence and countless testimonies of survivors, hampering the reconciliation process.
The denial, fear and hatred propagated by Bosnian Serb and Serbian politicians continue to breed a dangerous environment. In many parts of Bosnia, families of victims are forbidden to pay their respects to their loved ones. For example, in the city of Prijedor, another wartime genocidal hotspot in Western Bosnia, Bosnian Serb Mayor Marko Pavic has barred the building of memorials at the Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje concentration camps. Residents are forbidden from entering the camps to commemorate the massacre that took place there.
In 2013 the Mothers of Srebrenica, a Bosnian association that represents 6,000 women who lost family members during the Srebrenica massacre, had to break through a cordon of police officers, sustaining bruises from the beatings just to lay flowers for the 1,200 victims killed at an agricultural co-op in the town of Kravica.
By contrast, convicted war criminals are welcomed home with celebrations and Mladic has his own memorial plaque erected in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is the state of Bosnia today. Peace and reconciliation cannot prevail under such circumstances.
On July 11, Serbian journalist Dusan Masic is planning a mass demonstration in front of Belgrade’s parliament in Serbia to commemorate Srebrenica. This and a similar rally by Serbia’s Women In Black association, a movement that promotes justice and opposes war, militarism and other forms of violence, should be encouraged.
Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s current Prime Minister, who was elected in April 2014, had a chance to pave a new chapter for the region, by simply owning up to the truth about Srebrenica genocide. Instead, Vucic and other Serbian leaders have chosen to embark on denial campaign and have shown no sincere remorse for the crimes committed in Bosnia. By denying genocide, Bosnia and Herzegovina is taking several steps back toward the bloody politics of the 1990s. Without acknowledging the region’s dark historical past, tensions will inevitably persist and any future Bosniak-Serbian dialogue will be meaningless and dishonest.
For all these reasons, the Security Council should seriously consider adopting UK’s resolution during its rescheduled briefing on Bosnia and Herzegovina today. It’s the least the international community can do to honor the victims of Srebrenica tragedy. In the spirit of the pledge to “never again” allow genocide to happen, and for families of victims and survivors Srebrenica to find closure, every attempt should be made to fight genocide denial and the whitewashing of crimes.