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The UN must recognize the Srebrenica massacre for what it was

Just as it is unconscionable to deny the genocide of Europe's Jews, we cannot minimize the slaughter of the Bosniaks
Srebrenica massacre memorial gravestones, at the Potočari genocide memorial. (Michael Büker, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia)
Srebrenica massacre memorial gravestones, at the Potočari genocide memorial. (Michael Büker, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia)

If we believe, as I do, that Hamas’s slaughter of almost 1,200 Israeli Jews on October 7 was a genocidal act, we have an absolute obligation to recognize and commemorate all genocides and other crimes against humanity.

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is about to vote on a resolution to formally recognize the July 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak – that is, Bosnian Muslim – men and boys at the hands of Bosnian Serb ultranationalist paramilitary thugs at a place called Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a genocide and to designate July 11 as The International Day of Reflection and Remembrance of that genocide. This resolution must be adopted.

The resolution is being put forward by Germany and Rwanda, two countries with unique credibility regarding the perpetration of genocide, and has the support of a wide range of other UN member states, including the United States, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Jordan, and New Zealand. It is vociferously opposed by Serbia, and, if past is prologue, Russia will vote against it as well.

In 2015, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned “in the strongest terms the crime of genocide at Srebrenica,” with Russia’s ambassador to the UN disparaging the resolution as “confrontational and politically motivated.” This time around, however, no one country will be able to thwart the UNGA resolution which can be approved by a majority of UN member states.

The chilling and relevant chronology is not in dispute. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from the then-still-Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in May of 1992, insurrectionist Bosnian Serbs who self-styled themselves as Chetniks – the term used for nationalist Serbian guerilla forces during World War II – under the command of Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić engaged in a savage campaign to rid predominantly Serb-populated areas of Bosnia of Bosniaks and Croats with the hegemonistic goal of annexing these territories with what was then the Yugoslav Socialist Federal Republic of Serbia into a pan-Serbian national entity.

This Bosnian Serb Chetnik “ethnic cleansing” was waged in the open. On April 16, 1993, in an effort to provide Bosniaks with a safe haven, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 819 designating the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia and its surroundings “as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or other hostile act.” It turned out to be a death trap.

On July 11, 1995, a Dutch UN peacekeeping battalion stationed at Srebrenica handed over thousands of Bosniaks to the Chetniks, turned away thousands more, and did nothing, absolutely nothing, to even try to prevent Mladić and his troops from murdering more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in what UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan would later call “a terrible crime – the worst on European soil since the Second World War.” The Bosnian Serb Chetniks also raped Bosniak women and forcibly deported around 25,000 Bosniak women, children, and elderly from Srebrenica.

The UN has acknowledged its severe shortcomings with respect to Srebrenica, expressing “the deepest regret and remorse” in a November 1999 report of the Secretary-General. “Through error, misjudgment and an inability to recognize the scope of the evil confronting us,” the report stated categorically, “We failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder. . . . The tragedy of Srebrenica will haunt our history forever.”

Writing in The Jerusalem Post last week, Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, declared categorically – and without any substantiation whatsoever – that “anyone acquainted with that event, as well as with the original definition of ‘genocide’ knows very well that the crime committed by the Serbian troops does not fit the definition of genocide.”

The facts belie Zuroff’s contention. A succession of trial and appellate panels of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ), all of whom were thoroughly “acquainted” in excruciating detail with the horrors that took place at Srebrenica, have consistently held that the Srebrenica killings constituted genocide. Six Bosnian Serbs, including Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, the president of the breakaway Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, have been convicted of genocide by the ICTY in connection with the Srebrenica killings.

In its February 2007 judgment in Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, the International Court of Justice held that “the acts committed at Srebrenica … were committed with the specific intent to destroy in part the group of the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina as such; and accordingly that these were acts of genocide.” This landmark ruling also seems to somehow have slipped Zuroff’s mind – or, more likely, he does not want inconvenient truths to undercut his specious and ill-conceived arguments.

It is disconcerting, to say the least, that Zuroff fails to mention any of these judicial decisions in his article.

Zuroff and other deniers of the Srebrenica genocide are simply wrong in suggesting that genocide is somehow an abstract concept subject to intellectual or philosophical sophistry. In fact, it is a legal term firmly enshrined in international law. As defined in the 1948 Genocide Convention, as well as in the statute of the ICTY, genocide is any of a number of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” These acts include “killing members of the group” and “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.”

I write as the son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. On the night of August 3-4, 1943, my brother, my mother’s son, was murdered in one of the Birkenau gas chambers together with his father and his — our — grandparents.

I cannot in good conscience condemn the perpetrators of the genocide in which my brother and my grandparents perished unless I also condemn the perpetrators of all other acts of genocide, including the genocide that took place at Srebrenica.

I cannot in good conscience mourn my brother as a victim of genocide unless I similarly mourn all other victims of genocide, including the victims at Srebrenica.

I teach about the law of genocide and post-World War II war-crimes trials at the law schools of Cornell and Columbia Universities. One of my students at Cornell was Adisada Dudic, who spent three years as a child in Bosnian refugee camps with her mother and sisters.

“My home country is destroyed,” Adisada wrote in her paper for my course. “My family members are scattered all over the world, thousands of Bosnian women and girls were raped and ravaged, thousands of Bosnian men and boys were tortured in concentration camps and buried in mass graves, and so many of my people were slaughtered by an enemy hand that was out to get every single person that self-identified as a Bosnian Muslim.”

It is unconscionable and reprehensible for anyone to tell Adisada that the horrors to which her fellow Bosniaks – including quite possibly members of her own family – were subjected at Srebrenica did not constitute a genocide, just as it is unconscionable and reprehensible for anyone to deny the genocide in which my brother, my grandparents, and millions of other European Jews were annihilated.

That is why the proposed UNGA resolution is a moral imperative for the international community. To date, the UNGA has designated official international days of remembrance for the Holocaust (January 27) and the 1994 Rwandan genocide (April 7) as well as the victims of slavery (March 25), torture (June 26), terrorism (August 21), acts of violence based on religion or belief (August 22), and genocides generally (December 9). The UNGA must now do the same for the dead of Srebrenica.

It was not until 2005 when the UNGA established January 27, the date when the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liberated in 1945, “as an annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust” that remembrance of the genocide of European Jewry during World War II truly became part of the international community’s agenda and collective consciousness.

The victims and survivors of the Srebrenica genocide deserve no less.

About the Author
Adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School and lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School.
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