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Srebrenica: Diverging Narratives an Obstacle to Reconciliation

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During the fall of Srebrenica, more than 8.000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed by Bosnian Serbs under the leadership of Ratko Mladic, in what has been deemed genocide by both the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice. A much larger number of women and girls were the victims of sexual violence and left without their beloved ones.

Twenty years later, many wounds remain fresh. The ethnic tensions that gave rise to the massacre live on to this day, albeit without violence. While the Dayton peace agreement has precluded the outbreak of another major conflict, reconciliation remains uncertain. An important factor in this continuation of ethnic strife, is the persistent denial of what has happened in the region in the 1990s, and not only in Srebrenica. The events surrounding the remembrance of the massacre only underline this.

The commemoration of the massacre last week saw the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic being chased away by an angry mob. Victims and survivors remain upset at Serbia’s persistent refusal to call the Srebrenica massacre genocide. Although Serbia in 2010 “strongly condemn[ed] the crime committed against the Bosnian Muslim population of Srebrenica in July 1995,” it did not go further than calling it a “grave crime”. Indeed, Serbia seems to see any mention of Srebrenica as ‘genocide’ as an attempt to offend Serbia and undermine reconciliation.

This naming game was also played out internationally. On Wednesday 8 July, the Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, vetoed a Security Council Resolution, which would have condemned the massacre in Srebrenica as “a crime of genocide”, proposed by the United Kingdom to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the event. The veto marked the end of a diplomatic game in which Serbia, on the one hand, and the US and the UK, on the other, each tried to persuade Russia to take their side. The Russian Ambassador defended the veto by saying that the Resolution text was “not constructive, confrontational and politically motivated”, adding that it would only lead to greater regional tension. Instead it wanted to condemn “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.” In response, the British Deputy Ambassador Peter Wilson accused Russia of siding “with those who are unwilling to accept the facts today,” adding that “denial is the final insult to the victims.” Samantha Power, a former journalist in the region and now the United States ambassador to the UN, lamented that “[t]his is a veto of a well-established fact documented by hundreds of thousands of pages of witness testimony, photographic evidence, and physical forensic evidence of the kind I encountered on my walks.” The head of the organization Mothers of Srebrenica, said that Russia’s veto “would make trust and reconciliation impossible.”

There are a number of reasons that may account for the Russian veto. First, the geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West put a heavy burden on any issue which is as contentious as the events in the Yugoslav wars. Second, Moscow sees Belgrade as an important partner in a region of strategic and economic interest. The symbolic veto is an important signal to Belgrade that they should put their trust in Russia, and not in the European Union, which Russia is trying to keep out of the region. Last but not least, genocide has powerful political and moral connotations. As ‘the worst of all crimes’, the ‘g-word’ is sensitive in many circles.

However, the veto will probably empower the revisionist circles in Bosnia and make reconciliation far more difficult. The denial of Srebrenica is already a strong problem in the region. A 2012 survey found that “of the (mostly Serb) population of Republika Srpska only 59.2% say they even heard of a massacre in Srebrenica, while only 34.8% of the people who say that they’ve heard of the crime believe that it actually happened.” [italics in original]. This means that only 20.6% of the Republika Srpska population believe that a massacre happened in Srebrenica. Only last month, the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, called the Srebrenica genocide “the greatest sham of the 20th century.” The survey did not tell us which percentage of the population believed that it should be called a ‘genocide’, but we can imagine these numbers are even lower. These strong revisionist elements within Republika Srpska makes coming to terms with the past that much harder. Those that deny the genocide will only feel strengthened by the Russian veto.

The persistent struggle over how to approach the events in July 1995 forms a strong barrier to reconciliation in the region. The creation of a shared truth is important for any group of people that wants to live together. Or, as Slavenka Drakulic wrote, “where there is no true history, each person has in his own memory a collection of [emotional] images, and it becomes dangerous if he has nothing more than that. […] One can hardly defend oneself against such propaganda if there is no common history than everybody can believe in.” This is why Mohammed Durkovic, a survivor of the genocide, said on 1 July, during a conference at The Hague Institute which examined the events in Srebrenica, that he felt it was very important to bring the evidence, the facts to Bosnia, so as to undermine those that deny it. The ICTY, which is often assigned the capability to create a historical record of ‘facts’ of the events in the region, can play an important role in this effort and the Tribunal’s work to secure its legacy holds promise in this regard.

While in the short term, calling the Srebrenica massacre a ‘genocide’ might increase tensions in the region by frustrating the (Bosnian) Serbs, in the longer term the denial of facts established by the ICTY and ICJ—institutions that Russia also supports— and a large number of other organizations does not serve reconciliation in the region. The now century-old Armenian genocide shows how the persistent refusal to name a crime by its name can amplify victims’ suffering and undermine reconciliation for decades to come.

The authors would like to thank Dr. Eamon Aloyo and Mark Bailey for their constructive feedback.

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