Twenty-five years ago, between July 11 and July 16, 1995, in what a succession of trial and appellate panels of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, as well as the International Court of Justice, have declared to be genocide, Bosnian Serb paramilitary thugs of the Bosnian Serb breakaway proto-state known as Republika Srpska murdered approximately 8,000 Bosniak – that is, Bosnian Muslim – men and boys from the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which the United Nations had declared a “safe area” under the protection of a U.N. Protection Force.
The Republika Srpska forces under the command of General Ratko Mladić also deported more than 25,000 Bosniak women, children and elderly men from Srebrenica.
What can I, the son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, tell the survivors of the Srebrenica genocide and their families that they don’t already know and feel?
We understand, of course, how heartbreaking this anniversary is for them, but it is also of momentous significance for all who care about international human rights, for all who have a conscience.
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel said, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
In July of 1995, Srebrenica indeed became the center of the universe, and the international community must be forced to remember the atrocities it allowed to happen there because of its abject failure to prevent them from happening.
It’s not that the world did not have ample warnings. SamanthaPower, David Rohde, and other war correspondents had covered the gruesome developments of the war in Bosnia, but their words failed to set the world on fire, just as 42 and 43 years earlier, the reports of the systematic annihilation of European Jewry fell largely on deaf ears.
The United Nations Protection Force that was supposed to protect the Bosniaks who had sought refuge in what the UN Security Council had promised them would be a “safe area” instead abandoned them in a shameful act of cowardice.
My former student Adisada Dudić Hoque, who spent her childhood years in a succession of Bosnian refugee camps, summarized the Bosniak community’s pain and outrage in her paper for my class on war crimes trials at Cornell Law School: “My home country is destroyed,” she wrote, “my family members are scattered all over the world, thousands of Bosnian women and girls were raped and ravaged, thousands of Bosnian men and boys were tortured in concentration camps and buried in mass graves, and so many of my people were slaughtered by an enemy hand that was out to get every single person that self-identified as a Bosnian Muslim.”
Where, then, do we go now? What do we – both those who suffered through this genocide and we who were not there – need to do together going forward?
The time, the moment, when we gather to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide every year in mid-July, on the anniversary of the days when Ratko Mladić’s thugs were murdering Bosniak men and boys and ravaging Bosniak women and girls with absolute abandon, “must . . . become the center of the universe.”
Dunja Mijatović, the commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe, has called for July 11 to be declared an official Remembrance Day of the Srebrenica genocide. The UN, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and other international bodies should follow suit and mark July 11 with the same reverence accorded to January 27, the date that the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, which is observed around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It is critical for the international community to formally commemorate the Srebrenica genocide, not just out of respect for its victims, but as a public countermeasure to the repeated efforts, especially but by no means exclusively in Republika Srpska, to deny this genocide.
Let me make myself very clear. We all want reconciliation; indeed, we need reconciliation for society to move on after genocides and other crimes against humanity. But any genuine reconciliation must be rooted in truth, in a common understanding of the historical facts.
German-Jewish reconciliation in the aftermath of the Holocaust has only been possible because the German government and most of German civil society has acknowledged and accepted German responsibility for the brutal and systematic annihilation of six million Jews.
Any constructive post-Holocaust dialogue was and is predicated on German recognition and acceptance of the enormity of the crime that was committed by Nazi Germany, without any excuses or self-serving rationalizations on behalf of the perpetrators.
Memorial sites at places like Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau under the auspices of the German federal and state governments educate young Germans and all those who visit them about their history. In Germany, Holocaust denial is a criminal offense.
There will not be, there cannot be, any reconciliation in the aftermath of the Srebrenica genocide and all the other atrocities perpetrated at the direction of Ratko Mladić and erstwhile Republika Srpska President Radovan Karadžić until the political and intellectual leadership of Republika Srpska as well as the Serbian political and intellectual establishment generally educate the Serbian youth and Serbian civil society as a whole that Srebrenica was a genocide perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs.
We cannot allow Republika Srpska politicians and their international enablers to continue denying the Srebrenica genocide with impunity, or to try shamelessly to shift the blame to the victims.
But the responsibility for exposing and condemning such blatant falsification rests with all of us.
We must make it absolutely clear to the politicians involved that they cannot become accepted parts of the international community unless and until they own up openly and unequivocally to the darkest chapter of their history. This is an absolute prerequisite, and we must persuade our political and moral voices, as well as those in other countries, to make formal recognition and commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide a part of our national agenda.
This month, as we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, we who were not there stand in full solidarity with the survivors and their families. Let us dedicate ourselves together to ensuring that this horrific event will be permanently enshrined in the annals of humankind, for the sake of remembrance, of course, but also, equally importantly, as a warning.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities. This article is adapted from remarks he delivered on July 14, 2020 at a virtual commemoration, organized by the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina, marking the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide.