Why is it important to Remember Srebrenica: some personal reflections?

by Adam Boys, University of Edinburgh alumnus

In 1994 and early 1995, I was working for a small British charity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We, like the United Nations and many other agencies, had been trying for months to make our way through Eastern Bosnia to get food and medicine to the isolated enclave of Srebrenica. We all knew that many thousands of people had fled to the town from surrounding municipalities as a consequence of a brutal policy of “ethnic cleansing”.

The United Nations had a military presence in the town. NATO member states gathered intelligence on what was happening and the status of the enclave was consistently raised at the highest levels, by international peace envoys from the UN and the EU.

Serbian TV broadcast extensive footage of forces loyal to the Government of the Republika Srpska as they entered the town and recorded their commander, General Ratko Mladic, declaring that vengeance would be visited on the Muslim population. Other publicly available film footage documents execution-style murders of unarmed men, the mistreatment of prisoners and the forcible expulsion of women and children.

Immense amounts of money has been spent over the last twenty years on a detailed forensic investigation of what happened in Srebrenica. And an identification effort was established and led by the International Commission on Missing Persons which found, pieced together and named over 90% of the murdered men and boys using advanced DNA techniques on a vast scale.

Despite all of this evidence and despite the thousands of testimonies given by witnesses and survivors, there are active, well funded and highly sophisticated attempts to deny what happened. The attempts to do this even receive government funding and seek to undermine the war crimes process and reconciliation efforts. As with the Holocaust, denial thrives where there is less than absolute certainty over numbers and the circumstances of death.

Without a proper accounting and without the entity and state governments in Bosnia and Herzegovina taking responsibility for addressing what happened, bringing perpetrators to justice and adequately meeting the needs of survivors, lasting peace in Bosnia will not be possible.

But, it is not just about this one atrocity. Srebrenica is the single wartime event in Bosnia for which genocide has been proved. In fact, tens of thousands of other people were disappeared as a result of the same perverse government policy.

The world has also seen a sea change in the way it addresses the issue of missing persons. A shift occurred in the 1990s away from treating missing persons as the inevitable consequence of war with “humanitarian law” governing the search process. Increasingly, a “rule of law” approach is adopted that gives primacy to investigation and it is largely thanks to Srebrenica that this change has happened.

If we are to be genuine in our proclamations of “Never again!” we must continue to remember what happened, continue to learn what causes and feeds intolerance and continue to develop robust international laws and institutions that hold perpetrators to account.

Ultimately, prevention can only assured by encouraging national governments to develop constitutional protections and guarantees for the rights of all citizens. I now work for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an organisation that seeks to provide governments with the tools and comparative knowledge that enables them to develop ever more inclusive democratic systems. I may be naïve to think it and we will never know for sure, but had such knowledge existed in 1992 it may have been possible to avert war in the former Yugoslavia after overly simplistic elections split populations along ethnic fault lines.

Over the last few years I have worked closely with Dr Waqar Azmi OBE who leads a remarkable British charitable initiative called Remembering Srebrenica that seeks to ensure that every European Union Member State properly recognises July 11th as a day of commemoration for the atrocity. So far, only the United Kingdom has done so.

In 24 June 2015, I am delighted to be joining an international panel of speakers in Edinburgh at an event organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Global Justice Academy which aims to draw greater public attention to the importance of commemorating the horrific events that occurred in Srebrenica twenty years ago. Further details of this event, to be held in the University’s School of Divinity, are available here. All are welcome.

Adam Boys has worked in the senior management and leadership of international public sector and other non-profit organisations since 1994 when he was sent to Bosnia by the British charity “Feed the Children”. In 1995, he was seconded by the UK’s FCO to the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia (ICFY). From 1996 to 2000 he worked for the Office of the High Representative in Sarajevo as Chief Administration Officer and later as Director of Finance. From 2000-2014 Adam worked for the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). He lived in the countries of the former Yugoslavia for more than twenty years. He was awarded an OBE in the 2015 New Year’s Honours list “for services to conflict prevention and resolution, particularly in the Western Balkans”. He joined the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), in Stockholm, on 1 February 2015 as Director of Corporate Services.