“Never Again” has to have meaning 28 years later and the need still for those who acted and refrained from acting to be held accountable.
On 8 May 1945, in the wake of the Nazi extermination of approximately 11 million Jewish and other minority persons, surviving victims and the global community began using the phrase “never again” to express the international commitment to rid the world of genocidal acts. However, on 11 July 1995, in the waning days of Bosnia’s war, genocide once again touched European soil.
As Yugoslavia began to break apart during the three-year war between 1992 and 1995, three ethnic populations rose to the forefront of the conflict: Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. The two primary fighting forces were the Bosnian Serb Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS) and the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH). On 16 April 1993, as Bosnia and Herzegovina struggled to solidify its independence, the United Nations (UN) Security Council passed Resolution 819, which demanded: “all parties and others concerned treat Srebrenica and its surroundings as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act”. The UN then sent 600 Dutch Peacekeepers to Srebrenica to enforce the “safe area”, but it failed to take proper action to demilitarize and force the withdrawal of VRS, which surrounded the “safe area”.
Soon after that, the VRS forces entered the town of Srebrenica. Although the UN Peacekeepers were stationed in nearby Potocari, as the VRS began commencing what was later found by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to constitute genocide, the UN forces once again failed to act. Over the next nine days, the VRS systematically separated approximately 8,000 Bosniak men and boys and killed and buried them in mass. At the same time, VRS promised women busing to Muslim-held areas, but soldiers raped and abused many of these women before providing such transportation.
Twenty-eight years later, the sobering reminder of the UN’s failure to engage in its peacekeeping mandate when a vulnerable community needed it still reverberates throughout the international community. While the ICTY declared the Srebrenica massacre a genocide in 2004, and perpetrators, such as the Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladić, were sentenced to life imprisonment, these post-hoc solutions do very little for the families of those murdered in July of 1995.
Further, the UN acknowledged in 2015 its failures in preventing the genocide and its resolve to take early action to prevent the recurrence of such tragedies. But this is not the first time the UN has had to reflect on its prevention efforts or lack thereof. Presumably, the UN’s newfound resolve is the same resolve it gained after reflecting on its failure to act in Rwanda just one year prior to Srebrenica. There, 2,500 troops were ordered not to intervene and evacuate as a long-planned campaign of genocide commenced. In doing so, the UN left approximately one million Tutsi persons behind in “safe zones” for Hutu extremists to systematically murder in just one hundred days of brutality.
Despite its statements of resolve after two of the most egregious failures in the UN's peacekeeping history, it is still hesitant to take a proactive role in preventing the deprivation of human rights. Between 8 July and 11 July 2016, UN forces failed to respond effectively to the collapsing ceasefire in South Sudan, and hundreds of civilians were raped and killed in the capital city of Juba. Again, on 11 July 2020, almost 25 years to the day of the Srebrenica genocide, the Security Councill vetoed a proposal to provide aid at the northern Syrian border to those fleeing the Syrian Civil War. It appears that despite the lessons of the past, the UN still falls back on a “do not engage” and a “do not involve peacekeeping troops” approach, even when the alternative is likely mass deprivation of fundamental rights, even systematic murder of civilians on a truly massive scale.
While the UN is reluctant to change its intervention policy moving forward, the Serbian community also cannot move forward because many still do not even acknowledge the atrocities of the past occurred. Genocide denial propaganda has been pushed by several leading political figures such as President Milorad Dodik of Republika Srpska and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic of Serbia and takes several forms. Some deny that any crimes occurred at all, others dispute the number of people murdered or the noncombatant status of those killed, and others claim that the actions of VRS were retaliation for worse crimes committed by ARBiH. For example, in July 2021, the so-called “Independent International Commission for Investigating the Sufferings of all Peoples in the Srebrenica Region in the Period from 1992 to 1995”, asserted that the ICTY wrongly classified the events as genocide and that the mass killings of Bosniak civilians were a consequence of their refusal to surrender. Such a statement is deeply problematic and risks sowing deeper division and resentment among communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It is cleat that reports like this, and other statements of denial, are harmful to the victims' families, who are still uncovering mass graves today. They also prevent the region from moving forward and reconciling its past with a commitment to a more inclusive future. Most importantly, like the UN's reluctance to engage in peacekeeping before a party commits war crimes, denying past crimes increases the likelihood of actors committing future crimes.
Accountability is essential to the restorative process, whether for action or inaction. It is time to focus on the UN's continual inaction when confronted with looming threats toward human rights and the action of the post-Serbian community in rewriting history to whitewash its past crimes. On this day, as we take a moment to pay respect toward those victims of the atrocities that occurred twenty-eight years ago, it is equally as important to consider how the international community actualizes the principles of accountability for those atrocities. As the words "never again" continue to be spoken, the international community must also take the appropriate steps to ensure it does not have to say, "we will do better next time."
The Guernica 37 Group