Twenty-two years on, the lesson from the massacre at Srebrenica is that hatred creep up on us in stages – and at each stage we have the opportunity to stop it, writes Kate Green MP
Next week, on 11 July, we commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the terrible massacre that took place at Srebrenica. I will be leading a short debate in Westminster Hall today to mark the anniversary, and to consider the lessons we can learn for a world in which violence and hate are once again at the forefront of public concern.
First, a little history. In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces overran and captured Srebrenica, a town which in 1993 had been declared a United Nations safe area during the Balkans conflict. In the days after the fall of Srebrenica, more than 8000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were systematically massacred and buried in mass graves, some having spent days desperately trekking to seek safety. Many of those graves were then dug open, and the remains removed and scattered across new graves, in a bid to hide the evidence – leaving families with the agony of not knowing where their loved ones are buried. Throughout Bosnia, between 20 and 50 thousand women and girls suffered rape and sexual violence, while thousands of women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported. The appalling events at Srebrenica have rightly been characterised by international courts as genocide.
Serbian aggression and a determined process of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia lie at the root of this atrocity. But the international community also has much to answer for; UN troops responsible for protecting the safe area status of Srebrenica turned away thousands of Bosnian Muslims who had travelled there to seek their protection, delivering them in some cases directly into the hands of the Serb army. It is not surprising that the sense of having been let down by the international community is palpable in Bosnia, and not just in Srebrenica. When I visited Bosnia last year as the guest of the UK charity Remembering Srebrenica, Bosnians spoke repeatedly of their anger and bafflement at the United States’ decision in the autumn of 1995 to end Nato bombings of Serb positions in Sarajevo following the desperate siege which the city had endured since 1992 – just as the Serbs were within days of being defeated.
That anger and hurt continues today because, 22 years on, families still live with the agony of losing their loved ones, live with the horror of what they saw and experienced, and in many cases still wait desperately in hope that their remains will be found and identified (the International Commission for Missing Persons continues its painstaking work to this day, piecing together tiny remnants of human remains and returning them to the bereaved families). But the anger and hurt also continue because still today Bosnian Muslims experience discrimination and injustice. In 2015, in an aggressively muscular display of power, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik held an illegal referendum attempting to mark 9 January an official holiday, deemed unconstitutional by the constitutional court of Bosnia and Herzegovina because it discriminated against Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. During my visit, I was told that the Serbs refuse to allow the history of the genocide to be taught in schools, while the Dayton agreement, which ended the conflict, has baked in territorial and political arrangements which reflect and embed the ethnic cleansing which took place, and leave non-Serbs shut out from public office.
We should of course also acknowledge positive action by the international community: convictions of war criminals have been secured at the international criminal tribunals, and the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of steps to address Bosnians’ continuing sense of injustice, leading the way in drafting a UN security council resolution to mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, and calling for 11 July to be established as a memorial day for its victims – a resolution which was condemned by Serbia, and vetoed in the security council by Russia. But discrimination against Bosnian Muslims continues, and longstanding tensions remain unresolved, while the international community’s attention is distracted elsewhere. In my short debate today, I will be highlighting the risk that poses not just to Bosnians, but to wider peace and the legitimate exercise of power across Europe.
I will also be talking about action here in the UK to recognise and honour the victims of the genocide, and what we can learn about promoting peace and justice. Remembering Srebrenica does great work in teaching current and future generations more widely about the consequences of hate and intolerance. And that could not be more timely. In my own city of Manchester, as well as in London, we have seen the terrible return of terror and prejudice on our streets, and are now trying to make sense of the hatred and intolerance that gives rise to such extremist violence – all too often followed by reprisals and a rise in Islamaphobic hate crime.
The lesson from Srebrenica (and other genocides) is that such violence and hatred creep up on us in stages, beginning with differentiation and discrimination, fostering and fostered by a sense of grievance. Genocide results when that proceeds through stages of organised persecution and execution, and is followed by denial. Yet at every stage, as we watch hate unfold, we have the opportunity to break into that journey.
The government now is developing a counter-extremism strategy that could learn from an understanding of this process. In particular, we should learn that tolerance must be actively promoted in our communities, that they must be encouraged in educating and sharing with one another, that individuals must be supported in bravely speaking out against intolerance and prejudice, that inequality and injustice must be acknowledged and rectified – and that we must act early.
I travelled to Srebrenica with a number of young people, as well as community leaders and senior public figures from Greater Manchester. I am proud of the actions that they and others in my city have taken to champion peace and tolerance.
I am glad that we will have the opportunity in parliament today to commemorate the atrocity suffered by the people of Srebrenica. And I also urge a continued and stronger determination to learn the lessons of how intolerance takes root, to be alert to the markers that identify its growth, and to be resolute in working together with our diverse communities to tackle it early and comprehensively. That would be a fine memorial.
Kate Green MP is member of parliament for Streford and Urmston. She tweets @KateGreenSU
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