The U.N. Faces a Heavy Responsibility as the General Assembly Starts | Opinion

On July 11, 1995, the United Nations failed and betrayed tens of thousands of Bosniaks—that is, Bosnian Muslims—who had sought refuge in the town of Srebrenica in Eastern Bosnia resulting in the first genocide in Europe since the Holocaust. A Dutch U.N. peacekeeping battalion known as Dutchbat stationed there did nothing, absolutely nothing, to save these Bosniaks from being murdered by ultranationalist Bosnian Serbs. On the contrary, Dutchbat soldiers handed over thousands of Bosniaks to Bosnian Serb paramilitary thugs, who styled themselves as Chetniks—the term used for nationalist Serbian guerilla forces during World War II—and turned away thousands more. The very least the U.N. now owes these Bosniaks and their families is formal recognition of their tragedy.

Dunja Mijatović, the commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe, has called for July 11 to be declared the official international remembrance day for the Srebrenica genocide. “In the face of widespread denial of the Srebrenica genocide,” she said, “it is high time for the international community to stop looking the other way. Establishing a day of remembrance would show that the international community stands on the side of the truth and in solidarity with the survivors and families of the victims.”

If this year’s U.N. General Assembly does nothing else, it should adopt and implement Mijatović’s recommendation.

The events leading up to the Srebrenica genocide are relatively clearcut and chilling. In 1992, the multi-ethnic Socialist Federal Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (44 percent Bosniak, 31 percent Serb, 17 percent Croat) was one of six constituent republics that made up the even more multi-ethnic (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Montenegrins, as well as ethnic Muslims including Bosniaks and Kosovars) Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia in May of that year, insurrectionist Bosnian Serb Chetniks engaged in a savage campaign to rid predominantly Serb-populated areas of Bosnia of Bosniaks and Croats. Their goal was to annex these territories into what was then the Yugoslav Socialist Federal Republic of Serbia, creating 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 U.N. 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.

In the days starting on July 11, 1995, Dutchbat callously stood by as more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered by the Bosnian Serb paramilitaries in what former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan would later call “a terrible crime—the worst on European soil since the Second World War.” These Bosnian Serb troops also raped Bosniak women and forcibly deported about 25,000 Bosniak women, children, and elderly from Srebrenica.

The international community that could have prevented the Srebrenica genocide made no serious attempt to do so. Neither the U.S. government nor NATO, nor anyone else for that matter, sent troops to repel the Bosnian Serb forces.

The greatest moral responsibility for this genocide, however, must be placed squarely at the feet of the United Nations. It was the U.N. Security Council that deluded Bosniaks into believing that they would enjoy the U.N.’s protection in Srebrenica. Instead, Dutchbat abandoned them into the hands of the Bosnian Serb Chetniks without firing a shot. Dutchbat commander Thom Karremans was even photographed drinking wine with General Ratko Mladić, the commander of the Bosnian Serb breakaway armed forces who would be convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Court of the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 2017. As Bosniak men and boys were led away to be killed—while their mothers, wives and sisters were being abused and forced onto buses—they could see the Dutchbat soldiers save their own lives by walking away.

The U.N. 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.”

Genocide is not an abstract concept subject to sophistry. 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.”

succession of trial and appellate tribunals of the ICTY, as well as the International Court of Justice, have held consistently and unambiguously that what happened at Srebrenica constituted genocide under prevailing international criminal law.

And yet, the Srebrenica genocide and the fate suffered by its victims are being denigrated and trivialized on several fronts. The political leaders of Republika Srpska, which emerged as the Bosnian Serb constituent entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina following the 1995 Dayton Accords, not only deny the Srebrenica genocide but brazenly glorify its perpetrators as heroes and role models. Republika Srpska strongman Milorad Dodik, who has been sanctioned numerous times by the U.S, government for corruption and threatening the stability and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has called the Srebrenica genocide “a fabricated myth,” and reiterated as recently as February of this year that “Genocide did not happen there [in Srebrenica], we all know that here in Republika Srpska.” Others in Republika Srpska and in Serbia espouse similar views.

In 2015, Russia vetoed a British-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Srebrenica massacre as a “crime of genocide,” with Russia’s permanent representative to the U.N., dismissing the proposed resolution as “not constructive, confrontational, and politically motivated.”

These concerted ongoing efforts to deny and disparage the Srebrenica genocide constitute as deliberate and egregious an insult to the memory of those who were murdered there as Holocaust denial is to the memory of the Jews annihilated at Auschwitz-Birkenau and throughout Europe.

The Srebrenica genocide is commemorated annually at the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Potočari, a village within the Srebrenica municipality, in the very building that had served as the Dutchbat base of operations. However, the anniversary of this slaughter is largely ignored by the rest of the world. This must change.

I was privileged to deliver the keynote address at the Potočari commemoration in 2022 and again this past July 11, my last speech delivered in my capacity as associate executive vice president and general counsel of the World Jewish Congress before recently stepping down from these positions. The vast majority of the thousands gathered there were Bosniak survivors of the genocide and relatives of the murder victims. Looking into their eyes, especially into the eyes of the women who call themselves the Mothers of Srebrenica, I was reminded of the early Holocaust commemorations attended primarily by survivors and their families. The faces were the same, the anguish and tears were the same. I could not tell the difference between a Jewish mother such as my mother mourning a child gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau and a Muslim mother whose son was torn from her arms at Srebrenica.

But it is the international community and international civil society, in particular the governments and international institutions that allowed the Srebrenica genocide to occur, that must be forced—shamed if you will—into commemorating the Srebrenica genocide, if only as an act of atonement.

The United Nations has designated official international days of remembrance for the Holocaust (Jan. 27) and the 1994 Rwandan genocide (April 7) as well as the victims of slavery (March 25), torture (June 26), terrorism (Aug. 21), acts of violence based on religion or belief (Aug. 22), and genocides generally (Dec. 9). It must now do the same for the dead of Srebrenica.

It was not until 2005 when the U.N. General Assembly established Jan. 27, the date when Auschwitz-Birkenau 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.

A resolution establishing an international day of remembrance for the Srebrenica genocide will not be adopted unanimously or by acclamation. Serbia is certain to vote no. We can assume that Russia will do so as well. But this time Russia will not be able to exercise a veto. The U.N. General Assembly can adopt such a resolution by a simple majority. And all other U.N. members will have to go on record and vote yea or nay, except for those that choose to abstain, which would be a significant statement in and of itself.

I am confident—or at least hopeful—that a majority of the family of nations will be prepared to make such a symbolic gesture of penance to the Bosniaks whom the U.N. failed so grievously at Srebrenica.

Last year, the General Assembly adopted a resolution rejecting and condemning “without any reservation any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part,” and urging all member states to reject, again without any reservation, any such Holocaust denial. As part of the resolution designation July 11 as the official international day for the remembrance of the Srebrenica genocide, the General Assembly should similarly formally reject and condemn “without any reservation” all forms of Srebrenica genocide denial.

Those of us whose families endured the horrors of genocide have an inherent, intuitive bond with others who suffered a similar fate. As a Jew and as the son of two Holocaust survivors, I have the moral obligation to see to it that the Muslim victims of the Srebrenica genocide receive the same respect from the international community and are commemorated with the same reverence as the Jews, including my grandparents and my brother, who perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is an adjunct professor of law, Cornell Law School. This past July, he was awarded an honorary PhD by the University of Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina in recognition of his contribution to raising awareness of the genocide against Bosnians in Srebrenica and the Holocaust, through the fight against the denial of crimes and the falsification of historical facts, and for contributing to peace building and the development of a culture of remembrance.”

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.