UN declares 11 July Srebrenica massacre remembrance day

A woman at the Memorial centre Potocari, near Srebrenica
A memorial centre commemorating the massacre was created in Potocari in 2020 [Reuters]

United Nations member states have voted to declare 11 July an annual day of remembrance for victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

Germany and Rwanda’s proposal passed despite furious lobbying by Serbia against the resolution. President Aleksandar Vucic claimed it was “politicised”, and risked branding Serbia and Serb people as collectively responsible for genocide.

Ultimately, 84 member states voted in favour of creating an “International Day of Reflection and Commemoration of the 1995 Genocide in Srebrenica”. Serbia may note that this was outnumbered by the 19 votes against and 68 abstentions.

But the greater satisfaction will be felt by the relatives of more than eight thousand Bosniak Muslim men and boys who died in the massacre. Bosnian-Serb forces systematically murdered them, after they overran peacekeepers who were supposedly protecting the UN “safe area” of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia.

Radovan Karadzic (R) and his general Ratko Mladic (L), 1995
Ratko Mladic (left) with former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic [Reuters]

Directed by Bosnian-Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, the troops separated the men and boys from their wives and mothers, sisters and daughters. Most were never seen alive again.

The horror did not end with the killings. Over the following months, in an effort to cover up the scale of the massacre, Bosnian-Serb troops dug up the mass graves of their victims. They then scattered the remains across multiple sites.

As a result, body parts were dispersed – making identification difficult. Some relatives have been waiting for decades to bury their family members. But 29 years on, most families have been able to bury at least some remains at Potocari Cemetery, close to the site of the massacre.

The International Commission on Missing Persons pioneered the DNA technology to help identify more than seven thousand victims. It issued a statement commending the UN resolution.

“This solemn decision represents a significant milestone in acknowledging and honouring the memory of the victims and survivors of the Srebrenica Genocide,” it wrote, adding that the day of remembrance would act as “a poignant reminder of the enduring impact of genocide on individuals, families, and communities”.

This is not how Serbia’s government sees it. During the debate in the UN General Assembly, President Vucic warned that voting in favour would “open Pandora’s Box” – and lead to more resolutions, relating to other instances of genocide.

He hinted that Serbia might itself make such a proposal, pointing out there had never been a UN resolution addressing Serb victims of genocide – such as those murdered by the Nazi-allied regime in Croatia during the Second World War.

Mr Vucic insisted that the Srebrenica resolution was “not about reconciliation, not about memories, but about something that will open new wounds, not only in our region but also in this hall.”

A general view of Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Srebrenica is a small mountain town in Bosnia and Herzegovina [Reuters]

Even in Serbia, however, some wonder why their government had been so strongly opposed to the resolution. After all, the proposal explicitly stated that only individuals had been convicted of genocide, and that guilt "cannot be attributed to any ethnic, religious or other group or community as a whole".

In 2007, the International Court of Justice ruled that genocide was committed at Srebrenica, but found that Serbia was not directly responsible or complicit. Judges did, however, rule that Serbia had failed to prevent the massacre. Three years later, Serbia’s National Assembly passed a resolution condemning the massacre and apologising that more had not been done to prevent it.

In 2015, Mr Vucic – at that point prime minister – paid his respects in Srebrenica on the 20th anniversary of the massacre. Some protesters threw bottles and stones at him, but he promised he would “continue with [his] policy of reconciliation”.

Serbia – and its president – have shown consistency in some ways. Mr Vucic has called the massacre “a horrible crime”. Neither he nor his country have ever conceded that it was genocide – but nor have they contested the genocide convictions of Bosnian-Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic at The Hague.

The president of Bosnia’s majority-Serb Republika Srpska region, Milorad Dodik, is a different matter. He has repeatedly denied that genocide took place at Srebrenica, even though Bosnia has a law criminalising genocide denial. Other Serb nationalists have been delighted to take the same approach – and even glorify Mladic as a Serb hero.

Mr Dodik’s offensive antics may have prompted the UN resolution, as a way of reasserting that the massacre was indeed genocide – and that the anguish of the victims’ families should not be used for ethno-nationalist grandstanding.

The Republika Srpska president tried anyway. He threatened “the end of Bosnia and Herzegovina” if the resolution passed, with the “peaceful separation” of Republika Srpska. Those familiar with Mr Dodik’s regular secessionist outbursts rolled their eyes.

Following the vote, the Bosnian-Serb leader claimed victory. It was “not even an absolute majority,” he said. “Their plan to accuse the Serbs of being a genocidal nation failed”.

There never had been any such plan. But for politicians relying on nationalist support, pretending there had been was a convenient fiction.