Eight Bosnian men and boys killed 25 years ago in Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II were laid to rest on Saturday in a cemetery outside Srebrenica, a reminder that justice for genocide victims comes slowly, if at all.
The solemn ceremony, allowing survivors to bury family members’ remains identified through DNA testing, marked the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, which unfolded towards the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia, when Bosnian Serb forces overran what was supposed to be a United Nations-protected safe haven at Srebrenica and systematically murdered 8,000 Muslim men and boys.
The besieged town was intended to be a sanctuary for persecuted people from nearby villages under a U.N. Security Council resolution approved in April 1993 that directed all parties to treat “Srebrenica and its surroundings as a safe area which should be free from any armed attacks or any other hostile act.”
The 1995 Bosnian massacre in Srebrenica — the one episode of the Bosnian war that two U.N. courts have defined as a genocide — and the 1994 Rwanda genocide represent the U.N.’s greatest failures to date. They both occurred under the late Kofi Annan’s watch as a U.N. peacekeeping chief and special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, before he became the first Black African secretary-general of the United Nations and a Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomat.
Since that time, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, or MICT, at The Hague, Netherlands, has tried to deliver justice. It was set up by the 15-nation Security Council in 2010 to carry out the remaining duties of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
MICT’s president, Judge Carmel Agius, said he was saddened that, due to the pandemic, he could not join the ceremony beside the graves at Potočari, in Srebrenica, particularly since he heard “every detail of those infamous events” and the stories of survivors whose “courage and strength” astounded him.
“I watched video footage of helpless, unarmed Bosnian Muslim civilians being summarily executed. I saw photos of piles of bodies outside the warehouses in Kravica. I can never forget the expressions on the faces of those who knew they would die,” Agius said in prepared remarks on Saturday.
“I regret that there is much work ahead. While the ICTY and the Mechanism have delivered justice on an international scale, thousands of alleged perpetrators are yet to be tried domestically,” he said. “Moreover, victims continue to be tormented by those who attempt to deny their lived experiences and, thereby, their very existence. The revisionists seek to bury the truth with the same ruthlessness that saw almost 8,000 men and boys cut down in cold blood and thrown into shallow pits.”
The autocratic former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević, whose nationalist fervor incited the war, died in his U.N. cell in 2006 before tribunal judges could reach verdicts in his trial. Former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladić was convicted on one count of genocide and handed a life sentence in 2017 for leading troops who killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995. Some 100,000 people died and millions were uprooted from their homes during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 t0 1995.
But Mladic appealed and remains in custody, and prosecutors appealed to overturn his acquittal on a second count of genocide. The appeals have not yet begun due to Mladic’s health problems and the pandemic. He suffered a heart attack and two strokes; some victims’ relatives worry he might die before justice can be delivered. Prosecutors asked for an appeal hearing to be scheduled for later this month.
And in June, former Bosnian Serb general Milomir Savčić’s trial began. He is charged with aiding Mladić and others at Srebrenica by ordering troops to round up and execute hundreds of Bosnian Muslims.
We are determined to raise awareness of Srebrenica all year round, and so in the second half of this 25th anniversary year, we are proud to announce 'Untold Killing', a podcast that will explore Srebrenica through the voices of those who survived it. #Srebrenica25 https://t.co/2KKMVWi6kn
— Remembering Srebrenica (@SrebrenicaUK) July 11, 2020
‘This must be stopped’
A group of special rapporteurs and members of working groups that report to the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council urged governments to honor Srebrenica’s victims by working harder to prevent a recurrence of genocide. In recent years, human rights experts have repeatedly warned that ethnic and religious minorities such as Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya and China’s Muslim Uighurs are at risk.
“Genocides are not spontaneous. They are the culmination of unchallenged and unchecked intolerance, discrimination and violence,” the 18 U.N. human rights experts said in a joint statement.
“In our interconnected, technologically advanced and diverse world, it is deeply alarming that racism, xenophobia, stigmatization and scapegoating continue unabated, destabilizing or even destroying societies and the lives of individuals around the world,” they said. “We owe it to all those whom we failed to protect the guarantee of non-repetition through building peaceful, inclusive and just societies.”
While Mladić is considered “the Butcher of Srebrenica,” many Serbs view his trial and those of other former Serbian leaders as payback for the nation’s longstanding ties to Russia, which liberated the Serbian capital Belgrade from Nazi Germany’s occupation. They also share an Orthodox Christian faith.
In March of last year, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić’s 40-year sentence was increased to life in prison after U.N. judges upheld his convictions for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The judgement brought to a close his legal odyssey and a key chapter in the quest for justice in Bosnia.
He was only arrested in 2011, more than 15 years after a peace agreement was finally signed. The international courts said Bosnian Serb troops led by Karadžić committed genocide.
In Serbia, however, Karadžić is still regarded as an “inspiration and a hero” among many Serbs who are too young to remember the genocide, according to Ismail Ćidić, president of the pro-democracy Bosnian Advocacy Center. Karadžić also was seen as an inpiration by perpetrators of some of the 21st century’s worst terrorist attacks so far at a Norwegian camp in 2011 and at a New Zealand mosque in 2019.
MICT’s chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, said on Saturday the Srebrenica massacre was made possible by senior leaders who used propaganda to ignite ethnic hatred and to dehumanize their neighbors.
“Men at the apex of power used that power to terrorize and destroy, simply because the victims were Muslims,” he said in a statement. “For most of the world, Srebrenica is something that happened 25 years ago. But for the victims and survivors, their lives stopped 25 years ago. And the genocide remains at the center of their reality.”
Brammertz urged the world to make the commemoration’s meaning about more than honoring the past.
“To truly honor the memory of those lost 25 years ago, and to recognize the victims and survivors with us today, it is our responsibility to keep fighting for justice and the truth,” said Brammertz.
“Unfortunately, genocide denial and glorification of convicted war criminals are even more rampant today than they were five years ago,” he said. “This must be stopped. For too long the international community has hoped that this problem will simply go away. It will not.”