Last week's 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide was marked by, among other things, a long-overdue verbal recognition from several world leaders.
Heads of state or high government representatives gave video messages marking the 1995 genocide of over 8,000 people—mainly Bosniak men and boys—captured by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska under the command of Ratko Mladić and paramilitary units that came from Serbia.
These statements, issued instead of physical presence at the commemoration because of COVID-19, included contributions by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Spain’s Pedro Sanchez, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former US President Bill Clinton, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Prince Charles, and even former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has long been criticized for failing to recognize the extent of Serb-nationalist atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Today we honour the memory of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide in 1995. Foreign officials will take part in the commemoration in Potocari via a video message. Follow the link below for Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s statement. https://t.co/e39HJMOIuD
— Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs (@SweMFA) July 11, 2020
It was particularly important for Sweden and its government to make a clear stand, given last year's scandal involving the Austrian writer Peter Handke, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature by The Swedish Academy.
Handke has used his books to advance the Serb-nationalist narrative about the wars in former Yugoslavia, and his recognition by the Academy prompted protests by survivors and by journalists who had covered the Bosnian War—using the hashtag #BosniaWarJournalists.
(A fresh controversy arose this year with the news that a sculpture of Handke is to be erected in Banja Luka, the main city in Bosnia's Serb-dominated Republika Srpska.)
Regional leaders condemn the genocide, with two notable exceptions
Top political figures from countries in the Balkan region also issued video messages to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide.
Milo Đukanović, the president of Montenegro said in his video message that the criminal idea of exterminating another nation that exists in “Great Power” ideologies has been present in the Balkans too, referring no doubt to the recent “Greater Serbia” ideology.
In his official statement, president of North Macedonia Stevo Pendarovski noted that:
The Memorial Center and the Mothers of Srebrenica, through a clear message, testify of the collective past and are the conscience of our generation. They do not incite hatred, nor do they seek revenge, for it deepens injustice. They only seek truth and justice as a precondition for peace.
History, not only in the Balkans, teaches us that the idea of ethnically pure territories always leads to tragedy. And the recent Balkan wars have shown that genocide, after the Holocaust, can be repeated. If one generation does not speak, the next will forget, thus leaving a fertile ground for new conflicts.
This was in sharp contrast to Serbia and Republika Srpska, where no official statement came from the Serbian government. However, last year Ana Brnabić, the current PM, said she had no plans to visit the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Potočari and that it would be good if “we could stop reliving misunderstandings from the past.”
Meanwhile, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik said that he was against a law that criminalized genocide denial in Bosnia and Herzegovina, because “the narrative about a genocide in Srebrenica was suspicious,” repeating the well-worn Serb-nationalist trope about the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia being anti-Serb.
Several activists and NGOs in Serbia did commemorate the genocide, however, including the Women in Black, a group of anti-war activists, who gathered at Republic Square in the capital, Belgrade. The women had to be protected by riot police from a group of nationalists who approached them chanting the name of Ratko Mladić, the Serb general found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica.
Trg Republike pic.twitter.com/MDCrn2XIGG
— Јамичоче (@lukubracija) July 10, 2020
Protecting the perpetrators of genocide
Serbia's relationship with its recent past is exemplified by the impunity of its war criminals. The regional network of non-governmental organizations Youth Initiative for Human Rights issued a report warning that two ultra-nationalists and convicted war criminals—Dragan Vasiljković and Vojislav Šešelj—were running in the June 2020 elections.
Vasiljković had claimed that he would fight for “persecuted Serbs in Croatia, Kosovo and Montenegro,” as well as try to get Milorad “Legija” Ulemek and Zvezdan Jovanović released. The pair are serving sentences for the assassination of the Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić in 2003.
The report also pointed out that the Serbian Defence Ministry had promoted books that deny Bosnian Serb atrocities as well as Yugoslav Army crimes in Kosovo in 1999. For years Serbia has also been accused of harboring Serb war criminals from Bosnia and Herzegovina, including Novak Đukić, the Serb general who was found guilty of ordering the attack on Tuzla in May 1995 killing 71 civilians, mostly youngsters. After his sentencing, Đukić fled to Serbia and has been seen around Belgrade.
On July 9, two days before the commemoration of the genocide in Srebrenica, Serge Brammetz, the chief prosecutor of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, warned the world in a Guardian op-ed that “a number of alleged genocidaires have fled to Serbia and found safe haven there, including political leaders and military commanders.”
Brammertz also wrote that “genocide denial and the glorification of war criminals inflict tremendous suffering on the survivors and their families. Leaders in the region have publicly denied the genocide, even calling Srebrenica a hoax and a lie. War criminals convicted by the ICTY are often hailed as heroes by prominent figures, while victims’ suffering is ignored, denied and disparaged.”
The baton, Brammetz added, has now been passed to regional courts. He praised Bosnia and Herzegovina, but noted that “3,000 more cases are yet to be processed, including in relation to Srebrenica.”
With the culture of denial deeply entrenched in both Serbia and Republika Srpska, the prospect of bringing these war criminals to justice looks grim.