20 years after Srebrenica, what have we learnt?

20 years after Srebrenica, what have we learnt?

Benjamin Abtan*
Twenty years ago, on July 11, 1995, Serbian nationalist forces, led by General Ratko Mladić, carried out a systematic massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak boys and men. The Srebrenica genocide, as it was classified by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, unfolded over three days in the heart of Europe, in a “safe haven” guaranteed by the U.N.

20 years after Srebrenica

One genocide always leads to another. The highest French political and military leaders who supported the Serbian nationalists until the election of Jacques Chirac in May 1995 are those same leaders who collaborated with the genocidal regime in Rwanda before, during and after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis. For certain individuals in these ranks of the French state, the Vichy regime provided a link as discreet as it was powerful. The United States, for a long time, kept Bosnia at an arm’s length, just as they had done previously with Rwanda. The U.N., having left Rwanda when the genocide exploded, left the ethnic cleansing and siege of Sarajevo unchecked. Dutch blue helmets even turned away Bosniak refugees from a U.N. camp as they sought asylum from certain death in Srebrenica, not batting an eyelid as death squadrons separated women from men and adolescents —the last step before execution. 

Today, as thousands of Syrians are being massacred, as the Tamils have been exterminated in Sri Lanka, as Boko Haram steps up its slaughter in Nigeria, as ISIS carries out ethnic and religious cleansing, we know that these mass crimes are not only unacceptable in themselves, but moreover, they foreshadow those to come.
What, if anything, have we learnt from Srebrenica if we let these massacres unfold without doing everything in our power to stop them?

Indifference kills

The indifference that permitted this ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe, claiming Srebrenica at its peak, still continues.  

Each year, tens of thousands of people risk their lives and often lose them, notably in the Mediterranean, in an effort to escape dictatorial regimes, persecutions, misery, and to join our continent that offers them the hope of building a better life. 

The attitude of European states, in this regard, is criminal: they continue to adopt policies in full knowledge of the fact that they will undoubtedly result in thousands of deaths. 

What have we learnt from Srebrenica if we let selfishness and indifference prevail, if we allow slaughter to continue a few hundred kilometers, sometimes even meters, away from us? 

So that the words inevitably pronounced at commemorations do not ring hollow, we must fight this indifference and open our borders to refugees as soon as possible.

The ghost of the “European Civil War”

The support given to the Serbian nationalists 20 years ago was, in part, due to the fact they would have represented the last bastion of the Christian West fighting the Muslim offensive, which Bosnia would have spearheaded. The idea of a “European Civil War,” founded in the Bosnian conflict, has not since ceased from developing.

This idea is today supported by two objectively allied political groups: the nationalist, extreme right, whose parties have adopted a unifying anti-Muslim racist rhetoric, and Islamists, notably Salafists and jihadists, who attack, above all, Jews, women, free thought and democracy. The unusual alliance of these groups was demonstrated by the sight of Islamists supporting the Utoya shooter as he attempted to reason his worldview in court. 

The frontline of this political battle does not rest between Muslims and the West but in the Muslim world and in Europe, between supporters of Islamist totalitarianism and upholders of freedom, between nationalists and democrats.

What have we learnt from Srebrenica if we do not vigorously support those democrats in the Arab and Muslim world who, in the name of liberty, struggle against Islamist totalitarianism in Tunisia, Turkey, Iran and elsewhere? If we, in Europe, do not steadfastly tackle racism and anti-semitism to bring about a more just, democratic society?


Finally, there is a certain idea of Europe that died in the Bosnian War: that of a unified Europe, a guardian of peace built upon the rejection of mortal nationalism and the subjection of national interest to a shared democratic future. 

Today, as it was twenty years ago, Europe abandons this hopeful ideal as she leaves aside its most fervent believers: the Ukrainians who gathered in Maidan for their European dream, an independent state rid of corruption and protected by the rule of law; the Hungarian democrats who resist daily the destruction of democracy led by Victor Orbán; or those young Bosnians that dream of removing a corrupt and stagnant system, enacted by the Dayton Accords which institutionalized suffocating ethnic divisions.

Twenty years after Srebrenica, the solitude of Bosnia-Herzegovina harks back to her isolation suffered during the war. To integrate her into the European Union, which already includes Croatia, and awaits Serbian membership, would allow us to finally bring to an end the logic of war and ethnic cleansing. 

What have we learnt from Srebrenica if we do not accompany the measures brought about by the Dayton Accords with a non-ethnic constitution and if we do not offer a European hand to Bosnia-Herzegovina?

There, as elsewhere, the past shapes the present. Europe has — we have — the duty to learn from Srebrenica and to act so that current and future generations may construct a future underpinned by liberty.

*Benjamin Abtan is the president of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).