Has Europe learned the lessons of Srebrenica?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Memorial Center in Potocari near Srebrenica. Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 2015. [European Commission]

Twenty-five years on, what exactly has Europe learned from the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina? Not enough, and no one is taking the responsibility to prevent it from happening again, writes Emir Suljagic.

Dr Emir Suljagic, Director of the Srebrenica Memorial Centre, Potocari

Much can change in twenty-five years. When we imagine ourselves in 1995, would we have imagined the speed of life, the technological dominance, and the global health catastrophes of modern-day living?

For Bosnians, we imagined a better, kinder future, where the leaders of tomorrow would have learned from the painful lessons of our recent past. But in that respect, change has not been as rapid as we hoped.

It is twenty-five years since the signing of the Dayton Accord – the international agreement that ended the war in Bosnia.

It comes four months after the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. As director of the Srebrenica Memorial Centre, I have used this time to reflect on the legacy of that agreement, and the lessons we can draw from it, all these years on.

The first is this – it is not possible to reason with evil. Nor is it enough to tackle genocidal ideology with military force. The most important thing you can do – that any of us can do – is to discredit it at a political level.  Europe is, on the whole, resolutely failing to achieve this.

We can see this in the rise of extremist ideology throughout Europe.

Why does neo-Nazism exist and continue to thrive in 2020? Not only are European leaders failing to dampen the flames of neo-Naziism, but it is growing as a movement, seventy-five years after the horrors of the Holocaust.

The same pattern continues to exist on Bosnia, where hate speech and actions have continued to stain our communities since the end of the Bosnian genocide in 1995.

The second is that it is impossible for modern life to co-exist safely with such dangerous ideologies. The idea that we can build any meaningful future while such hatred persists is preposterous. And yet, European leaders right now, at this moment, are trying to do so – at best, ignoring it; at worst, accommodating and stoking it.

The third lesson is that experiences from the atrocities of the past are too easily forgotten. Many 25-year olds across Europe have never heard the word ‘Srebrenica’, let alone understood the gravity of the event.  That is why it is critical to ensure that acts genocide and other crimes against humanity are remembered.

Institutions like the Srebrenica Memorial Centre are monuments dedicated to the dead, but they must remain living institutions.

Srebrenica must not become an element of Bosnian memory alone, but a defining element of European history, taught to all young people – particularly young Muslims.

We were killed for one thing that we couldn’t change about ourselves: for the names that our parents gave us; for who our parents were; for what was imposed on us the moment we were born.

For that reason, it is my mission to record and publish as many testimonies from the survivors and witnesses of Srebrenica as possible, to preserve every single story. Piecing together this narrative is critical to the understanding of why this happened, and why it must never happen again.

When faced with catastrophe, all leaders have a responsibility to act. The most important lesson from Srebrenica is this: for responsible leaders to prevent such horrors, they must act immediately.

Genocides do not happen overnight. People then, as now, were facing untold difficulties in living their day-to-day lives, facing the reality of being discriminated against, being placed outside the ambit of the law, being politically persecuted, and facing intolerable racist abuse.

These are the early indicators, very reliable indicators, of mass catastrophes, months, even years before they begin to unfold.

The sooner there is action to prevent mass atrocities, the better the outcomes. The number of victims in Bosnia would have been significantly lower, had the international community decided to act in, say, in September 1992, instead of September 1995. Those three years allowed for crimes against humanity, for persecution, and for murder to evolve into a full-blown genocide.

Dayton allowed us to stop the terrors unfolding in Bosnia, but it has not prevented the steady increase of discrimination, hate speech, rejection and criminalisation of groups across our continent. It is time for the leaders of Europe to take meaningful, coordinated action to prevent the slow creep of increasing racism.

Genocide is not a thing of the past. It has happened – in Europe – in our living memory. And no one is taking the responsibility to prevent it from happening again.

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