On the eve of the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Hitler told his generals “send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language.” To forestall any worries about a potential international backlash should Germany destroy the Poles, Hitler declared, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” The message was clear; atrocity crimes – even genocide – can be forgotten.
It would be an exaggeration to claim that the genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995 has been forgotten; the annual memorial to the massacre of some 8,000 people over the course of approxiametly two weeks – which was recognised as genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice – is widely recognized and invariably marked with solemn speeches by powerful world leaders. But while “Srebrenica” remains a part of international political discourse, its routine invocation should not be interpreted as inherently positive.
In many ways, the nature of the memorialization of Srebrenica by the international community has – perversely – become a means by which the most salient lessons of Srebrenica have been obscured. The tragic reality is that while world leaders have shown an eagerness to express sympathy, these rhetorical flourishes divert attention away from the fact that there has been a marked unwillingness to address the root causes of the genocide. While many will declare “never again,” a more accurate sentiment is “nothing’s changed.”
Hate speech on the rise
Genocides are not spontaneous acts of random violence committed by bloodthirsty lunatics. They occur only after leaders implement a coordinated campaign whereby a target group is dehumanised and portrayed as an existential threat. The Srebrenica genocide could not have happened if Bosnian Serbs had not been convinced that Bosnian Muslims were a subhuman “other” that threatened their very existence. Before the genocide, Bosnian Serb leaders spoke of the threat posed by “Balijas” and “Turks” and the need to create an ethnically pure homeland; during a parliamentary session in 1991, Radovan Karadžić, the then President of the Serb Democratic Party, openly warned the Bosnian Muslims they would “disappear” if war erupted.
Despite the mountain of evidence which highlights the link between hate speech and genocide, if anything hate speech is more widespread today than in 1995. Of late, Bosnian Serb leaders have become increasingly willing to openly express sectarian sentiments and deny the facts surrounding the Srebrenica genocide; the rhetoric has ominous parallels with the pre-1995 discourse. Milorad Dodik, the current Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia, recently stated, “Every nation needs a myth and Bosniaks did not have one. So, they decided to construct one around Srebrenica.” Serbia’s Prime Minister, Ana Brnabić, has also denied that genocide occurred at Srebrenica.
The international response has been somewhere between mute and ineffectual; UN human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell, reflecting on, “the rise in hate speech, the denial of genocide and other atrocity crimes and the glorification of war criminals” by Bosnian Serb leaders, decried, “The failure to prevent and sanction such acts.” In fact, the international community has demonstrated a particular eagerness to support the Serbian government and turn a blind eye to its growing authoritarianism and overt denialism. The prevalence of hate speech is not confined to the Balkans; many Western leaders – most notably Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – have come to power in recent years by fomenting hatred against a malign “other” and divisive populism is on the rise worldwide. As such, the current prominence of hate speech in Bosnia – and the Balkans more generally – is not an endogenous problem; it is reflective of global trends and a turn towards divisive populism within the West itself.
Prevailing Balkan stereotypes
When I visited the memorial centre at Potočari in 2019, the testimonies of the survivors, the personal items recovered from mass graves and the sheer scale of the cemetery, all left an indelible mark. But I was particularly struck by the racist graffiti drawn by the Dutch UN troops on the walls of their dorms. It was clear that they saw the locals as primitive and savage; their shameful decision to abandon the very people they were charged with protecting – as vividly depicted in “Quo Vadis Aida?” – makes more sense when one understands how they viewed them.
Sadly, racist tropes about the Balkans still persist. This has profound implications for the millions of people who live there. In 2003 the EU assured the countries of the Balkans that they would join the bloc; only Croatia has joined since. In recent years, the accession process has stalled as powerful EU members – most notably France and the Netherlands – have actively worked to block states from the region joining. Preventing the “uncivilized” Balkan masses from joining the EU has undoubtedly won many Western politician’s votes, but it has prolonged the hardship and international isolation endured by the citizens of these states.
More worryingly, conceiving of the world as divided into zones of civility and chaos facilitates the commission of atrocity crimes; those left isolated in the periphery become more desperate, more angry and thus more susceptible to the blandishments of nationalistic demagogues who promise that all will be well if the “other” is destroyed. Likewise, those with the power to prevent such genocidal violence will be enabled to ignore these atrocities if they have cultivated a prevailing narrative that casts the people in these “failed states” as pathologically violent “others” that cannot be helped. The Syrians, the Rohingya, the Tigrayans, the Houthis, and many others have found this to their cost since 1995.
International Law and Hypocrisy again?
The reason the international community did not prevent the genocide in 1995 was not because there was a lack of laws to enable them to do so. The laws existed; states chose not to enforce them. The international legal order created after World War II gave the UN Security Council the power – but not the duty – to enforce international law; they can act if they wish, but they don’t have to. This of course means that political machinations determine who is saved and who is left to die, as the Bosnian Muslims, and the Rwandan Tutsis in 1994, found to their costs.
After Rwanda and Srebrenica “Never Again” once again emerged as a common refrain and many demanded that the international legal order be reformed. While this movement gained significant momentum, the reality is that the international legal order is exactly the same today as it was in 1995. In 2001 the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) emerged as a putative solution to the failings exposed by genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, but it has proved to be little more than a slogan; since R2P was recognised by all the world’s states in 2005, atrocity crimes have increased.
The fact that the system has not changed is not an accident; powerful states have actively blocked attempts to reform the means by which international law is enforced. So long as those with the power to stop mass slaughter can choose whether to do so, others will experience the same dreadful fate as the Bosnian Muslims in 1995.
As we reflect on the genocide at Srebrenica we must focus on more than just expressing regret for past failings. It is imperative that the lessons of Srebrenica are also remembered and, more importantly, acted upon. Ultimately, the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995 was not inevitable; it could have been stopped but those with the power to do so failed to act and routinely justified their inaction on the basis of lazy stereotypes about the Balkans.
On the anniversary of the genocide, world leaders will again say “never again” but this is a cost-free and ultimately hollow phrase. To express sorrow over what happened at Srebrenica whilst simultaneously tolerating – if not in fact engaging in – hate speech, promoting populist tropes about Balkan savagery and “otherness” and actively blocking efforts to reform the means by which international law is enforced, is dangerous hypocrisy.
Feature image: Adem Mehmedovič / K2.0.