Perspectives | War Crimes

Twenty-five years after the Srebrenica Genocide

By - 11.07.2020

Accounting for the missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina and beyond.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide, the largest crime of the Bosnia war. Nine victims will be laid to rest in the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery, joining the over 6600 already interred there. 

The youngest victim buried today, Salko (Ahmo) Ibišević, was only 23 years old, the oldest, Hasan (Alije) Pezić was 70.

Images of the cemetery filled with white grave markers (nišani) that now populate the grounds will be streamed around the world. 

When President Clinton delivered a speech at its opening in 2003, there was only a green hillside in the background. The cemetery today is a testament to one of the most successful interventions in postwar Bosnia: The search, recovery, and identification of the genocide’s missing. 

It is the outcome of the international community’s efforts to grapple with the issue, the development of domestic institutions, in addition to the dedicated activism of the surviving family members.

Srebrenica’s survivors have taken to the streets, and to local and international courts to demand information about their missing loved ones and to seek accountability from the Serbian and Bosnian Serb perpetrators, in addition to the UN troops who failed to prevent genocide. 

They also identified Potočari as the place that the overwhelming majority wanted as the final resting place for their loved ones.

Death of human rights

Early in the war, the United Nations struggled with how to address the deteriorating human rights situation and the question of the missing in the succeeding countries of Yugoslavia as war raged in Croatia in 1991. Tensions increased in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the fall of the same year, leading up to the formal outbreak of war in April 1992.

At the end of his mission, Mazowiecki concluded that “human rights simply do not exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

In the early months of the war, there were extensive reports of civilian casualties, mass atrocities, and prison camps. In August 1992, the United Nations Human Rights Commission appointed former Polish Prime Minister and Solidarity movement leader Tadeusz Mazowiecki as a special rapporteur and tasked him with conducting an emergency investigation into human rights violations in the former Yugoslavia. 

During his visit to Bosnia later that month, Mazowiecki and his team were denied access to the Manjača prison camp in the northwest of Bosnia. At the end of his mission, Mazowiecki concluded that “human rights simply do not exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

What became known as the Mazowiecki Report singled out the plight of Bosnia’s Muslim (Bosniak) population whose fate was described as, “particularly tragic” because ‘they [felt] that they [were] threatened with extermination.’ 

The report urged the creation of a commission to determine the fate of the individuals who disappeared. 

By 1994, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) received information on 11,000 cases of disappearances in the former Yugoslavia. That year a Special Process on Missing Persons in the Territory of the former Yugoslavia, led by Manfred Nowak, was set up with a joint mandate of the special rapporteur to determine the fate of the missing and coordinate efforts to excavate mass graves.

Mazowiecki later resigned in protest over the international community’s anemic response to atrocities in Bosnia, Srebrenica in particular. His resignation letter contained a stunning rebuke of the UN. 

“These events constitute a turning point in the development of the situation in Bosnia,” he wrote. 

“At one and the same time, we are dealing with the struggle of a State, a member of the United Nations, for its survival and multiethnic character, and with the endeavor to protect principles of international order. One cannot speak about the protection of human rights with credibility when one is confronted with the lack of consistency and courage displayed by the international community and its leaders.”

This was not the first condemnation from an UN official. 

Early warning signs

A 1993 UN Security Council report written by Venezuelan UN Ambassador and then Security Council President Diego Arria after a field mission to the UN enclave described what was happening in Srebrenica as “slow-motion genocide.”

The need to account for persons missing in conflict is enshrined in International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The Fourth Geneva Convention implicitly requires that parties to a conflict facilitate inquiries about individuals missing as a result of hostilities. 

Motivated by the rights of families, the additional Protocol 1 explicitly “requires each party to the conflict to search for persons who have been reported missing by the adverse party.”

By the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 that ended the war, around 100,000 people had perished, a figure that included over 27,000 missing persons.

During the war, the issue of missing persons was the responsibility of local Red Cross chapters and eventually handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Missing persons are initially recorded by a tracing request, which documents the circumstances where the person in question was last seen. 

ICRC set up and chaired a Working Group on Missing Persons in 1996. Its lists were an important initial source of information about Bosnia’s missing.

By the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 that ended the war, around 100,000 people had perished, a figure that included over 27,000 missing persons. Of those, Srebrenica’s missing represented a challenge for identification efforts as bodies were disinterred and transferred to secondary graves months after the atrocities to hide evidence of the crimes. 

Traditional identification methods, which rely on mortal remains and the personal effects of the victims, were not possible. The use of DNA would soon establish the relationship between primary and secondary graves over a vast swath of geography. 

Early exhumations of mass graves were carried out by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in support of its trials. 

What would become the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) was created at the initiative of President Bill Clinton at the G-7 summit in Lyon, France in 1996 with a mandate to aid the region in its search for the missing. To do so, it eventually set up a world-class laboratory in Sarajevo and employed a large number of local staff to pioneer the use of DNA technology for the issue of the missing. 

This technology matched the DNA in the bones recovered from mass graves with that of the DNA in the blood samples of the surviving family members. 

The first identification was announced in 2001, that of a teenage boy killed in the genocide.

Creating a shared narrative

The success of ICMP’s work has hinged not only on the application of this technology and its forensic expertise but on the role of its case managers in explaining the identification process to family members who have to acknowledge the findings of DNA match reports. 

ICMP conducted outreach campaigns in Bosnia and the states where Bosnians fled as refugees to populate its database with the DNA profiles that made identification possible. It also provided extensive support to Bosnia’s family associations.

“For those of us who worked at ICMP, it was of great importance to do everything possible to provide answers to the family members and bring a name and dignity back to the pile of bones but at the same time show how a small country that emerged from the war could turn its tragedy into something positive for the entire world,” said Alma Mašić, former regional coordinator of ICMP’s Civil Society Initiatives Program.

In parallel, Bosnia created domestic institutions, drafted legislation, and drew upon ICMP’s expertise. 

The 2004 Law on Missing Persons set up the legislative framework and addressed problems such as the survivors’ inability to receive pension payments in the absence of an identified loved one. Entity-level commissions transformed into a state-led process and the Missing Person Institute, which handles the day to day field operations with support from ICMP’s experts, was established. The domestic criminal justice system started prosecuting war crimes.

Today, families honor the memory of their missed (and formerly missing) loved ones.

These developments have occurred amid an atmosphere of denial persistent in Bosnia and neighboring Serbia. Implicit in most post-conflict peacebuilding and transitional justice efforts is that more information, documentation, and accountability for legacies of political violence will create shared narratives and solidify transition processes. 

The accuracy of this assumption has been thrown in sharp relief in the postwar period. Still, the search for the missing is a right of surviving family members and crucial for the postwar state.

In the book “Missing: Persons and Politics,” Jenny Edkins argues for a “politics based on regard for the who and not the what, a politics not based on categorization, determination, and the search for certainty.” She also implores us to seek an understanding of the “politics that misses the person” in addition to an understanding of the political aspects that lead the person to go missing. 

Today, families honor the memory of their missed (and formerly missing) loved ones. Bosnia’s tragic chapter has increased the awareness of the issue of missing persons in post-conflict states. The search for the missing must continue for the more than 1000 still unaccounted for in Srebrenica, an effort that will require the continued dedication of resources. 

Further, the historical aspects of the Bosnian story should be understood so that survivors in other countries can use this experience in their advocacy for the right to a family and the right to know.

Victims who will be buried in Potočari on July 11, 2020

  • 1971-1995

  • 1969-1995

  • 1925-1995

  • 1970-1995

  • 1947-1995

  • 1943-1995

  • 1941-1995

  • 1972-1995

  • 1968-1995

Feature image: Lara J. Nettelfield.

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