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Genocide denial concerns all of us

Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH Dunja Mijatovic
Dunja Mijatovic
July 11, 2020

Protecting the truth from deniers and serving justice for victims of the Srebrenica genocide is our best bet to prevent genocides from occurring again, writes Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic.

OSZE-Beauftragter für die Freiheit der Medien Dunja Mijatovic
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Council of Europe/S. Weltin

That genocide was perpetrated in and around the Bosnian city of Srebrenica 25 years ago is incontestable. Several judgments of international courts have made it crystal clear. Yet, many politicians continue to deny this truth, thus deepening the suffering of the survivors and endangering peace.        

The genocide of Srebrenica took the lives of more than 8,000 human beings, mostly Bosniak men and boys, and displaced 30,000 people. It was perpetrated by the Army of the Republika Srpska under the command of a now-convicted war criminal — and with the complicity of a passive international community.

Instead of recognizing it as one of the vilest chapters of Europe's contemporary history and working towards reconciliation, many prominent politicians and public figures in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Serbia are fanning the flames of nationalism and willfully sowing the seeds of hate. This is a dangerous situation.

Read more: Srebrenica genocide denial attempts 'absolutely outrageous,' says forensics expert

Some war criminals hold prominent public roles

Genocide denial weakens society's ability to detect the reemergence of discourse and acts that may lead to new atrocities. It also dehumanizes the survivors and the victims — and rips them of both recognition and justice. It hampers the fight against impunity for war crimes and, eventually, the possibility of reconciliation.  

As a recent report on genocide denial of the Srebrenica Memorial Center shows, political rhetoric that denies the genocide, delegitimizes the courts, and glorifies war criminals persists. In some cases, war criminals hold prominent public roles in the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, run for public offices in Serbia or keep an active public life, during which they promote the same abhorrent views and lies that led to so much human suffering.

We would be wrong to believe that this is a problem confined to Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Serbia. Surely, both countries should do much more to fight impunity and genocide denial. At the same time, European countries, both acting individually and as part of international organizations, should come out of their state of indifference and put their weight behind efforts towards justice and reconciliation in the Balkans. 

Read more: Bosnian Serb leader Dodik disputes facts of Srebrenica genocide

Criminalizing the denial of genocide

Despite having set up the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the international community was indeed reluctant for a long time to press the countries in the region to bring genocide perpetrators to justice. It took years before all people indicted were transferred to The Hague, while many perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice. Nowadays, the international community remains silent on the need to stop and punish the deniers.

Genocide denial concerns us all because it undermines justice that was so painstakingly obtained for the victims, it seeds discord and mistrust among people, and thus increases the chances of conflicts in society and among countries. This should be taken seriously particularly now, when neo-Nazi and nationalistic parties preen again in Europe almost unchallenged.

Remembering Srebrenica

The first step to take is to pass laws at national levels which criminalize the denial of genocide. Passing laws prohibiting the denial of genocide would greatly contribute to setting the record straight and reducing the chances of political leaders and opinion makers holding shameful discourse about genocides. Such laws have been adopted in several European countries. 

Another step forward would be the establishment of an international Remembrance Day to commemorate the genocide of Srebrenica. This is a long-standing request of the Mothers of Srebrenica — and the least the international community could do. Regrettably, only the European Parliament has had the courage to act on this request in 2009 when it called on the Council of the European Union and the European Commission to "commemorate appropriately the Srebrenica-Potocari act of genocide" and proposed that July 11 be declared a day of remembrance. A call for a Remembrance Day was reiterated last year by Munira Subasic and Kada Hotic, two Srebrenica mothers who came to the Council of Europe for the first time last year.

Read more: Srebrenica survivors' wounds never heal

Treating all the victims as our own, no matter their origin

Establishing an international Remembrance Day requires political will. It would cost nothing for international organisations, but would mean a great deal to the survivors. In particular this year, when celebrations will be scaled down because of the pandemic, establishing this day would show commitment towards justice and truth, and would acknowledge the human dignity of the victims and the survivors of the genocide of Srebrenica.     

However necessary, laws that prohibit genocide denial and the establishment of a Remembrance Day would be insufficient to counter denial effectively. Education is needed to hope to have a lasting impact against denial.  

School textbooks of all Council of Europe member states should include an objective account of the genocide of Srebrenica, explaining what happened, why and with which consequences. They should educate about the past, educate to debunk myths, educate about justice and equality for all. And they should educate to treat all the victims as our own, no matter their origin or identity.

Protecting the truth from deniers and serving justice for the victims of the Srebrenica genocide is our best bet to prevent genocides from occurring again.

Dunja Mijatovic is the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.