On 11 July 1995, Bosnian-Serb forces under the command of Colonel-General Rakto Mladić attacked Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina. The events that unfolded over the course of the following weeks transformed this unknown-to-the world mining town with a total population of fewer than 40,000 people into a global byword for human suffering, the pity of war and the horrors of genocide.
Occurring 25 years ago, the Srebrenica Massacre that followed Mladić’s taking of the town involved the killing of approximately 8,000 men and boys and the brutal forced deportation of 23,000 women and girls. Officially declared a genocide by The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 2004, the Srebrenica Massacre was not only the worst atrocity of its kind in Europe since the end of the Second World War but conducted under the gaze of United Nations peacekeepers – it was a tragedy that laid bare the limits of what the post-1945 order of peace, humanitarianism and international law could achieve when faced with the dark realities of a war in which such norms were discarded.
The former Yugoslavia’s history built the path to Srebrenica’s suffering. In 1991, the former communist nation began to fracture violently along ethno-religious lines, leading to a series of wars between Serbs, Slovenes, Croatians, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Albanians and Kosovars – all former Yugoslav citizens whose leaders now sought to define them from each other by their ethnicity, language, culture and religion. Occurring in tandem with the outbreak of similarly brutal ethno-sectarian violence in Rwanda, the Yugoslav Wars presented to the international community a snapshot of a world in which the norms of human rights and ethno-religious tolerance that had been championed for decades were being sacrificed on the altar of history.
In both Yugoslavia and Rwanda however there was a group that would seemingly protect the present from the re-emergence of the past and all its horrors – the United Nations. Founded in 1945 with the aim to shepherd the world into a new and peaceable era, by the 1990s the UN possessed thousands of blue-helmeted peacekeepers whose job was to prevent the escalation and intensification of conflicts around the world. As part of this broad mandate in 1993 the UN passed Resolution 819, declaring Srebrenica and its surroundings a UN enclave in which refugees could find succour from the violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In line with the Geneva Convention, the enclave was also declared to be a de-militarised safe zone that combatants of any side were unable to enter. The fact that this resolution was violated repeatedly by both Bosnian-Serb forces and the local Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina provided dire portents of what was to happen in the summer of 1995.
When Mladić’s 2000 strong force attacked Srebrenica in July 1995, the Dutch force of 400 blue helmets under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Thom Karremans was forced back to their base at nearby Potočari along with approximately 20,000 Bosniaks – most of whom were not permitted behind the chain-link fence of the UN compound on the grounds that space, food and water were limited. The refugee’s hope that their safety could still be ensured by camping within sight of the UN base was proven to be tragically misplaced. On 12 July, Mladić’s troops arrived at the UN compound’s gates with buses and trucks, stating their aim to remove women and children from the area.
The men who remained spanned in ages from young teens to pensioners and were separated from their families. Both the refugee leaders and Lieutenant-Colonel Karremans were informed that more trucks were on their way to take the men to the same location as the women. Those trucks never arrived. Instead, over the course of the following days the Bosnian-Serbs murdered approximately 8000 Bosniaks via both arbitrary acts of violence and organised executions.
The fact that the Bosniaks – a Muslim ethnic group that had existed in Bosnia-Herzegovina for centuries – were targeted on account of their religion and furthermore that the women were violently separated from the men prior to the massacre, was later found to have satisfied the definition of genocide as laid down by the UN in Resolution 260 in 1948, otherwise known as the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. According to this document, genocide involved the ‘intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’ via either deliberate killing or a process of deportation and maltreatment.
Given that the blue helmets were operating under a mandate that both recognised this resolution and demanded that Srebrenica be a safe zone, it came as a shock to the world when stories of Dutch UN peacekeepers standing idly by whilst Mladić’s forces carried out the deportations, the massacre and many random acts of brutality around the Potočari base began to emerge. The question asked by a horrified world was simple: how with armed UN soldiers present were these atrocities allowed to happen?
The answer to this question laid bare the blind spots in international law and UN mandates which owing to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, had already been pointed out by many a troubled member of the international legal fraternity and the UN Security Council. Central to the issue of explaining the inaction of Karremans’ troops was the fact that Dutch were peacekeepers, not peacemakers. Operating under UN rules dating back to the blue helmets’ inception, their mission was to maintain peace and order – not to actively engage the forces of either side in a given conflict. Given that Mladić’s men were armed and during the fall of Srebrenica had attacked UN forces and taken hostages, the armed participation of UN troops in stopping the massacres could have been interpreted as a form of escalation that bellied the peacekeeper’s mission.
A court case launched by the relatives of some of the victims of Srebrenica in 2008 challenged this view, by calling for both the UN and the Dutch government to take responsibility for what had happened at Srebrenica on the grounds that either an act of force by the blue helmets or the opening up of the Potočari compound to more refugees could have prevented the massacre. The court’s 2019 findings led to the Dutch government assuming responsibility only for the deaths of a few hundred of the 8000 murdered. The UN for its part received little more than chastisement – both internally and externally – for its inability to maintain the safe zone around Srebrenica, followed by a process of rueful reflection on its role as a guardian of human rights and a force of order in the world. The sum of these reflections in The Brahimi Report of 2000, recommended that peacekeepers adopt a more robust approach to their duties, including an emphasis on rapid deployment, and co-operation with non-UN military personnel.
Beyond engendering UN soul searching, the events at Srebrenica also led to the largest indictment of suspected war criminals since the end of the Second World War. Convened via the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia – the trials have been ongoing since the 1990s, with scores convicted and sentenced on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, including Mladić himself, whose 2017 life sentence has been appealed against. The legal fallout of the Srebrenica massacre has also included an unprecedented attempt to indict the Serbian state itself for the crime of genocide at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. The judgment in this extraordinary case laid down in 2007, stopped short of declaring the state of Serbia responsible. However, it did clarify 2004 findings that what happened at Srebrenica was, by the definitions enshrined in international law, genocide and that the government that backed Mladić’s forces did hold some responsibility.
Amidst these judgements, arguments have also been made that Mladić’s invasion of the Srebrenica enclave was justified by the war crimes carried out by Bosniaks against Bosnian-Serbs, or that the murder of the refugees (though acknowledged as a war crime by the Serbian government) did not constitute a genocide. A testament to the eschewing of international law in both arguments is the fact that even if atrocities had been committed by Bosniaks, reprisal by way of violating a protected enclave and massacring its occupants cannot be justified in the laws of armed conflict. Reflecting on these arguments 25 years on from the perpetration of the war crimes that engendered them, the events at Srebrenica stand as a sober reminder of how fragile international humanitarian law, human rights and the systems created to protect those most vulnerable in war can be. That the breakdown of these systems – many of which were created in response to the atrocities of the Second World War – happened so swiftly, brutally and within living memory at Srebrenica is also a testament to how easily the ghosts of history can resist exorcism.
Are you interested in re-examining the past? If so then perhaps you'll be interested in one of LJMU's History courses. You can also read more of James Crossland's journal articles and publications on the history of terrorism, panics, propaganda and much more.