A UN resolution on the Srebrenica genocide ignites old tensions

Leaders from Serbia and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska have been campaigning against the adoption of a UN resolution commemorating the Srebrenica genocide.

A person holds a banner with a photo of convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic as Bosnian Serbs protest against the resolution on the genocide in Srebrenica which is to be adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in early May, in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, April 18, 2024.REUTERS/Amel Emric
A protester in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina holds a picture of convicted war criminal, former Serb general Ratko Mladic, during a demonstration against the UN resolution commemorating the Srebrenica genocide [Amel Emric/Reuters]

A resolution for the United Nations to mark July 11 as an international day of commemoration for the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica is expected to take place on Wednesday.

It has drawn strong opposition from Serb leaders, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic saying he will “fight until the last moment”.

The vote in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) had been postponed, according to Zlatko Lagumdzija, permanent representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the UN, following lobbying efforts by Vucic against its adoption in New York.

Initiated by Germany and Rwanda, the resolution has been co-sponsored by more than a dozen countries including the United States, France, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Chile, Ireland and others.

In 2004, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague ruled that the crimes in Srebrenica in July 1995 committed by Serb forces constituted genocide. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) upheld this ruling in 2007.

“The Tribunal has established beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing of 7,000 to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim prisoners was genocide,” the ICTY said.

Eight judgements of the ICTY contain guilty verdicts for genocide committed against Bosniaks in Srebrenica.

The UN has declared specific days for commemoration of genocides before – in 2004 for the genocide in Rwanda and in 2005 for the Holocaust.

Previously in 2015, the UK launched a resolution in commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide at the UN Security Council, but it was vetoed by Russia, preventing its adoption.

Here’s a breakdown of why the vote on a UN resolution has raised tensions with Bosnia and Serbia:

What does the UN resolution say?

The resolution condemns “any denial of the Srebrenica genocide” and actions that glorify those convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It urges member states to “preserve the established facts, including through their educational systems”.

It requests the secretary-general to establish an outreach programme with activities and preparations for the 30th anniversary in 2025.

The document does not mention Serb people or Republika Srpska, the Serb-run entity in Bosnia.

Why is this UN resolution important?

Azir Osmanovic, a Srebrenica genocide survivor and curator at the Srebrenica Memorial Center, explained the resolution’s importance in an address last month.

Recounting his chilling experience as a child in Srebrenica during the war, he said: “Our struggle, unfortunately, is far from over. On a daily basis, we are subjected to rampant and ruthless genocide denial, historical revisionism and the threat of renewed violence.

“International recognition of the Srebrenica genocide as a universal tragedy would help to stem this tide once and for all and through global awareness, ensure that no other community, anywhere in the world, comes to share our fate.”

How have Serb leaders reacted?

Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, and a regular denier of the Srebrenica genocide, said the resolution consists of “provocations from Bosniak politicians and their sponsors from the West”, who have “the goal of satanising the Serb people”.

“Us Serbs say there wasn’t a genocide and we do not accept any resolutions or platforms,” he said on X. “Any speculation about that should be absolutely rejected.”

He also told Russian 24 TV that Bosnia “maybe won’t survive as a single country”. Adopting the resolution in the UN would “only complicate relations in Bosnia, until the point of total dysfunction,” he said.

Thousands of people recently attended a rally held in Banja Luka, Bosnia, organised by Dodik’s SNSD party. Several officials from Serbia also attended the event, including the speaker of the Serbian parliament, Ana Brnabic.

President of Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) Milorad Dodik gestures as Bosnian Serbs protest against the resolution on the genocide in Srebrenica which is to be adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in early May, in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, April 18, 2024. REUTERS/Amel Emric
President of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik is photographed at the rally in Banja Luka, Bosnia with speaker of Serbian parliament Ana Brnabic [Amel Emric/Reuters]

President Vucic has said he is concerned that requests for war reparations would ensue with the adoption of the non-binding resolution.

He wrote on Instagram that the resolution will “open a Pandora’s box” and called it “a political decision which will lead to new divisions, opening of old wounds and instability in the region”.

He posted photos from New York, writing about his meetings with permanent representatives to the UN, including Russia and the United Arab Emirates, and his lobbying efforts against “the hypocrisy of the proponents of the resolution”.

He wrote that a group had been formed at the Mission of Serbia to the UN to tackle the issue and meetings will ensue with more than 120 permanent representatives to the UN.

What does the resolution mean for Republika Srpska?

Croatian political analyst Davor Gjenero told Al Jazeera there are strong reasons as to why there is “fear” in Republika Srpska and Serbia.

“The passing of the resolution could launch a process which could lead to the cancellation of the Dayton peace agreement and the entities that it created (Federation and Republika Srpska),” he said.

“The question of the ‘recognition of the results of genocide’ can indeed be raised, and international circumstances and Dodik’s unreasonable policy of doubling down on secessionism can lead to the nullification of Dayton and the end of both entities.

“Working patiently and thoughtfully in the UN could be very important.”

Map of Federation and Republika Srpska Bosnia
Map of Bosnia & Herzegovina

What does the resolution mean for Serbia?

Nevenka Tromp, lecturer in East European studies at the University of Amsterdam told Al Jazeera that with the resolution’s adoption, “Bosnia could sue Serbia again for genocide”.

The ICJ ruled in 2007 that there was not enough evidence to conclude that Serbia bore responsibility for the genocide, but that it did fail to prevent it from happening.

Bosnia could now find a third, friendly country which could launch a new lawsuit, according to Tromp.

This was not typical in the past, but in 2019, The Gambia sued Myanmar for genocide against Rohingya. South Africa recently launched a legal case against Israel for genocide on Gaza’s behalf.

“Serbia is following all of this with great nervousness because this development means the story of responsibility for genocide for the state of Serbia is not over,” Tromp said. “Now Kosovo could also start a process against Serbia for genocide on the territory of Kosovo in the 1990s.

“Of course, at some stage the issue of war reparations may also follow and not only from Bosnia and Kosovo as a state, but also those who survived the genocide, as well as the families of the victims of genocide could also seek compensation from Serbia, in the courts in Serbia.”

Why does the Serb political leadership deny the Srebrenica genocide?

Peter McCloskey, former ICTY prosecutor, told Al Jazeera: “Serbia and the Republika Srpska do not have the moral courage and strength to admit the truth established by the ICTY criminal convictions for Srebrenica.

“In this day and age where truth can be hidden through mass media and the internet, some governments have chosen the coward’s way out, denying the established facts and propagandising to the world in an attempt to win over the frightened and angry people in their own countries that are vulnerable to such extreme forms of deception.

“Rather than lead from a platform of falsehoods and untruths, these countries would be better served to look inward, as Germany finally did after World War II, and deal with horrors their policies brought to the people of the former Yugoslavia. Leadership relying on a false and dangerous foundation is not at all unusual in this world, hence the importance of the United Nations resolution recognising the Srebrenica genocide and condemning Srebrenica denial.”

Source: Al Jazeera