A quarter of a century ago, a brutal conflict was raging in Bosnia. The disintegration of Yugoslavia had triggered a civil war pitting the different ethnic groups in the former socialist federal republic against each other: Bosniak Muslims, Croats and Serbs. By the summer of 1995, the war was three years old. It had already cost thousands of innocent lives and been defined by episodes of ‘ethnic cleansing’ – the forced displacement of unwanted population groups to create ethnically homogenous territories. The Bosnian Serb side, in particular, had been frequently accused of such attacks on civilian populations. However, in eastern Bosnia, during July 1995, a series of killings would occur which are now considered to have been the worst episode of mass murder on European soil since 1945.
On 6th July, the Bosnian Serb army began shelling the town of Srebrenica, where 40,000 Bosniak Muslim civilians were sheltering. Soon, Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic was seen in Srebrenica’s streets, handing out chocolates to children and telling civilians that they had nothing to worry about. In truth, at the same time as he was publicly reassuring these civilians, his troops were separating military-aged Bosniak men from the women and children. The women and children were loaded onto buses and driven to refugee shelters in nearby towns. The men and teenage boys were loaded onto trucks and driven to the hills outside Srebrenica. Over the coming days, they were killed and dumped into mass graves, often with their hands tied behind their backs. The murders of more than 8,000 men would turn this part of eastern Bosnia into a killing field.
Srebrenica was designated in United Nations Security Council Resolution 819 as a ‘safe area’ for civilians from April 1993. The UN had initially estimated that some 34,000 peacekeepers would be needed on the ground to ensure the safety of Srebrenica and a handful of other towns that were declared ‘safe areas’. However, member-states had only contributed some 7,400 peacekeepers. A Dutch battalion was assigned to protect Srebrenica. But these troops were 150 in number and lightly armed, as opposed to 2,000 well-equipped Bosnian soldiers, who began shelling Srebrenica in July 1995. Commanders on the ground assessed that the troops would not be able to withstand the assault unless supported from above. But those higher up in the UN’s chain of command, reluctant to take any steps that would put their troops in danger, refused repeated requests for close air support. Outnumbered and unsupported, the Dutch troops were unable to prevent the separation of men from women and the deportations that followed. The 40,000 civilians in and around Srebrenica were at the mercy of Ratko Mladic and his troops. A now-infamous photo, taken just before the mass killings began, shows Dutch UN commander Thomas Karremans sharing a drink with Mladic. The events in Srebrenica in July 1995 occurred despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping force and happened to people whose safety the international community had pledged to guarantee.
Initially, UN officials did not expect any mass atrocities at Srebrenica to be imminent, believing Mladic’s assurances. However, by 13th July, Dutch peacekeepers had begun encountering civilian bodies in the Srebrenica countryside, as a subsequent UN inquiry found. In the following days, Western media began relaying the accounts of survivors and aid workers on the ground. On July 24th, the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in former Yugoslavia, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, ended a week-long investigation with the conclusion that of the 40,000 civilians living in Srebrenica before the Bosnian Serb attack, 7,000 could not be accounted for – they were missing. Three days later, he resigned from his post, accusing the international community of having been too slow to act on the evidence of atrocities in Srebrenica, and of risking a repetition in Zepa, the next safe zone singled out for Serb attacks.
As more and more witnesses spoke out, evidence was accumulating in Western capitals. On August 10, at a closed-door session of the Security Council, Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the UN, presented enlarged photos taken by US spy satellites, suggesting the presence of mass graves in the area around Srebrenica. News of the massacre served as a catalyst for a developing shift in the international community’s approach to the Bosnian war. At a July conference in London, the US and other states agreed to end the ‘dual-key’ policy, which had required air support requests for UN peacekeepers in Bosnia to be signed off by both a civilian UN and a military NATO commander, as a result of which most requests were denied or stalled. The NATO operation in Bosnia became more robust, employing airstrikes to deter and prevent further atrocities. By July 1995, the Bosnian war had lasted three years. After the Srebrenica massacre, it was brought to an end within five months.
The international community may have proved unable to prevent the slaughter at Srebrenica. But it was not going to let the perpetrators get away unpunished. The next chapter in the story was just beginning.
Chasing the perpetrators
In May 1993, the UN Security Council had adopted Resolution 827, providing for the establishment of an international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (the ICTY), with the aim of trying and punishing those responsible for atrocities in the Yugoslav wars. The Tribunal’s prosecutor began collecting evidence against those involved in the killings at Srebrenica and other atrocities. In November 1995, as the Dayton Accords ending the Bosnian war were drafted, indictments were filed charging Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and General Mladic with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes over the events at Srebrenica. Confirming the indictments, ICTY judge Fouad Riad described the alleged crimes at Srebrenica as “truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history”.
In August 2001, General Radislav Krstic – one of Mladic’s men – was found guilty of genocide at Srebrenica, and sentenced to 46 years in prison. Three years later, the Appeals Chamber would reduce his sentence and downgrade the degree of culpability attributed to him, but uphold the finding that genocide occurred at Srebrenica:
“…Bosnian Serb forces carried out genocide against the Bosnian Muslims (…). Those who devise and implement genocide seek to deprive humanity of the manifold richness its nationalities, races, ethnicities and religions provide. This is a crime against all humankind, its harm being felt not only by the group targeted for destruction, but by all of humanity. – Appeals Chamber decision on Radislav Krstic’s appeal, 19 April 2004.
At the time of Krstic’s conviction and appeal, his superiors – Karadzic and Mladic – had still not been captured. Karadzic evaded justice until July 2008, when Serbian authorities arrested and surrendered him to The Hague, after 13 years on the run. Mladic was not apprehended until May 2011, when he was also extradited to stand trial before the ICTY. On March 24, 2016, Karadzic was convicted of the Srebrenica genocide, alongside a number of crimes against humanity and war crimes, and sentenced to 40 years in prison (later increased to a life sentence on appeal). In November 2017, the Tribunal handed down a life sentence against Ratko Mladic.
These convictions stand against the persistent efforts by some, especially in the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, to deny the facts or rewrite history. In 2018, Serbian Prime minister Ana Brnabic, while acknowledging Srebrenica as a ‘terrible massacre’, told press she did not believe it amounted to genocide. In 2015, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica, objecting to the use of the term genocide and the resolution’s criticism of any attempts to deny it. In 2018, Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska (the governing entity for the Serb parts of Bosnia under the 1995 peace agreement) set up a commission to assess events at Srebrenica, after overturning the findings of a previous such commission which had in 2004 acknowledged the death toll at Srebrenica, and accepted the ICTY’s legal assessment of the facts (and caused Dodik’s predecessor to make a televised apology to the victims). Dodik, by contrast, has stated that he believes some of the victims of the 1995 genocide are still alive. But the conclusion that events at Srebrenica meet the legal definition of genocide is backed up by international law: for not only the ICTY affirmed several times that the atrocities of July 1995 constituted genocide: the International Court of Justice in 2007 came to the same conclusion when it decided the issue in Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v Serbia and Montenegro). The US Senate and the European Parliament, among others, have adopted resolutions acknowledging these findings by international jurists.
Dutchbat and the Mothers of Srebrenica
And yet, there was another battle for accountability to be fought. Relatives of victims of the genocide (the ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’) have spent years fighting in courts to hold the Dutch government accountable for the failure of its peacekeeping troops. The fact that grave mistakes were made is now beyond doubt: a report presented to the UN General Assembly in 1999 concluded that “through error, misjudgment and an inability to recognize the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.” In 2002, the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation blamed political failures and misjudgments for having led to the events at Srebrenica, noting that the Dutch troops had been sent “to keep the peace where there was no peace” to keep. The Dutch government of the day resigned in response to these findings. But the question of legal responsibility was yet to be settled. The UN’s immunity from suit was confirmed by the Dutch courts and by the European Court of Human Rights. As for the Netherlands, Dutch courts have found that their state was responsible for the eviction of 350 men from a UN compound near Srebrenica in July 1995, a decision that resulted in these men being killed by Bosnian Serb forces. A Dutch appeal court’s finding that the Netherlands were liable for 30% of the damages resulting from the killings was reversed last July by the country’s supreme court, which reduced the Dutch share of liability to a mere 10%. This latest decision, as of January 2020, is again being challenged by the Mothers of Srebrenica in the European Court of Human Rights.
25 years on, the memory of the Srebrenica genocide needs to be kept alive, its victims honoured. What happened in July 1995 remains a searing indictment of the fatal consequences of an international community unwilling to do what it takes to prevent mass atrocities. What happened in the years since is more of a reason for optimism. A determined effort to try and punish the architects of the Srebrenica genocide has been successful, most notably in the cases of Karadzic and Mladic, but also in a number of other genocide convictions handed down by the ICTY and local courts in the former Yugoslavia: by July 2018, a survey found that the Hague tribunal and domestic courts together had sentenced some 45 people to prison terms totaling 699 years in length (plus 3 life sentences) in connection with Srebrenica. With its reasoned and evidence-based findings, the work of the ICTY (and the ICJ) has helped solidify the world’s knowledge of what happened at Srebrenica, and produced a historical record of the genocide which serves as a powerful antidote to any attempt to deny, mischaracterize or forget history.
Power, Samantha: ‘A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide’, New York, 2003.
Robertson, Geoffrey: ‘Crimes against Humanity: the struggle for global justice’, London, 2012.
UN General Assembly, “Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 53/35: the fall of Srebrenica”, 15 November 1999, A/54/549
Karcic, Hikmet, “Denying and glorifying the Srebrenica genocide is inspiring extremists around the world”, EuroNews, 11 July 2020, https://www.euronews.com/2020/07/11/denying-and-glorifying-the-srebrenica-genocide-is-inspiring-extremists-around-the-world-vi
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