21 Jul Srebrenica is a reminder of why Britain must lead the fight against human rights violations
Twenty-five years ago, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mainly boys and men, were murdered in what became known as the Srebrenica genocide. It happened in Europe, part of an ethnic cleansing campaign, and took place in what the United Nations had declared a ‘safe area.’ Srebrenica occurred fifty years after the liberation of Auschwitz, on our doorstep, half a century after the world had vowed, ‘never again.’
A unanimous ruling in 2001 at The International Court of Justice affirmed that the Srebrenica massacre was genocide: ‘By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They targeted for extinction the forty thousand Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica, a group which was emblematic of the Bosnian Muslims in general. They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity.’
In his message to the tenth anniversary commemoration of the massacre, then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, acknowledged the blame lay ‘first and foremost with those who planned and carried out the massacre and those who assisted and harboured them.’ Annan went on to say that the UN had ‘made serious errors of judgement, rooted in a philosophy of impartiality.’ He described Srebrenica as a tragedy that would haunt the history of the UN forever. It should haunt all of us, for as Samantha Power, a war reporter in Bosnia and later US Ambassador to the UN, has written, ‘the UN has at its disposal whatever resources the governments within it choose to provide.’ Furthermore ‘it is the major players… that dictate how “the UN” handles crises.’
In Britain, the Government supported an arms embargo effectively preventing the Bosnian Muslims from procuring the weapons needed to defend themselves, arguing that to lift it would create a ‘level killing field.’ From retirement Margaret Thatcher replied that there was already ‘a killing field the like of which I thought we would never see in Europe again,’ and went on to argue that ‘It is in Europe’s sphere of influence. It should be in Europe’s sphere of conscience.’
In early 2017 I taught a course in politics and government to aspiring politicians in Bosnia. As a young civil servant I had worked on domestic human rights policy at the Ministry of Justice, and twelve years later as I flew out to Sarajevo I was not just an elected councillor steeped in all things local government, but also shortly to become engaged to my partner of Balkan heritage whose family had lived through the Yugoslav Wars.
Bosnia still carried the scars of conflict. Youth unemployment was as high as 60% in some areas, and the group I met, while determined to take up the baton, believed that the Dayton Peace Agreement’s separation into two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, embedded ethnic divisions with all the electoral obstacles that brought. As is usually the case, women and young people felt the impact of the past most strongly.
Earlier this month the Foreign Secretary announced the introduction of a sanctions regime that will target people who have committed the gravest human rights violations. Global Britain, Raab declared, will be an even stronger force for good in the world in the years ahead. Raab was once an official at the Foreign Office and led a team at the British Embassy in The Hague, dedicated to bringing war criminals to justice. Had he not entered Parliament, Raab may perhaps have played some part in the process which led to the prosecution and conviction of Ratko Mladić in 2017, the man who commanded the units responsible for Srebrenica.
Twenty-five years after Srebrenica, and twenty-six years after the Rwandan Genocide, atrocities in places like Myanmar, Yemen, and Syria are no longer guaranteed to shock. This month US officials seized $800,000 worth of products made from human hair believed to have been taken from Muslims in detention camps in the Xinjiang province of China. In 2018, Human Rights Watch described the Chinese government’s ‘mass arbitrary detention, torture, forced political indoctrination, and mass surveillance of Xinjiang’s Muslims’ and yet often these topics only get brought up in the context of China’s takeover of Hong Kong, or debates over 5G and geopolitics.
Raab’s announcement should be the first step in making Britain the world’s leading campaigner, pursuer, and punisher, of war crimes and human rights violations. We cannot be certain of preventing every atrocity, but we can call it out when it is happening, and we can fight to ensure that those who commit crimes against humanity are brought to justice and punished. Such a commitment would serve as a warning to monsters who would use the cover of war to commit unspeakable acts of horror, and build on Britain’s commitment to standing on the right side of history, while learning from the lessons of the past.