Neither the representatives of Russia nor of the United States held back their views: To Russia, the resolution to recognize the killings of thousands of civilians as genocide was “politically motivated.” But for Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Russia's refusal to accept the resolution was “madness.”
These remarks were not part of a debate about Syria and the killings in Aleppo, however. They made headlines a year ago as the world commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serbs, beginning on July 11, 1995.
Russia’s persistent refusal to acknowledge the massacre of Srebrenica as genocide sounded hauntingly familiar to some Tuesday, amid news that more than 80 civilians were killed by pro-Assad and Russian-backed forces in Aleppo. Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative Party lawmaker in Britain, pointed out that despite pledges after the Srebrenica massacre to never allow anything similar to happen again, “here we are today witnessing, complicit, in what is happening to tens of thousands of Syrians in Aleppo.”
Although comparisons between Srebrenica and Aleppo have come from survivors of the former massacre themselves, experts point out one key difference: "News of the Srebrenica massacre was slow to trickle out," said Cameron Hudson, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. "Because of the internet and social media, we see in real time what is happening inside Aleppo."
Srebrenica nevertheless provides some indications of what might yet come in Syria: a decades-long continuation of hostilities in various ways and a refusal to fully acknowledge responsibility. Despite more evidence being found every year, Serbian denial of the full scale of the massacre is on the rise.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic recently claimed that the continued focus on the Srebrenica genocide was meant to “smear the entire Serbian nation as genocidal.” Nikolic thanked Russia for standing by the country.
The facts in Srebrenica’s case are hardly disputable. The massacre — described by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan as the worst crime in Europe since World War II and classified as genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia — is well documented. “Genocide occurred at Srebrenica. This is a legal fact, not a political judgment,” Peter Wilson, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said in 2015.
Yet, tensions continue to simmer. When Serbia’s prime minister visited the memorial for the massacre last year, he was chased away by an angry crowd. Conspiracy theories still circulate in Serbia questioning the country’s responsibility for the killing. And Serbia’s judiciary continues to struggle with reconciling formerly hostile ethnic groups and its responsibility to prosecute those who were involved in the massacres.
Serbian leaders have singled out the focus on the 1995 massacre as an obstacle to reconciliation in the region — despite disagreement among leading genocide experts.
“Justice for mass atrocities and genocide are incredibly important for a number of reasons,” said genocide expert Hudson. “Not only can the justice process help heal societies and provide closure for victims and their families, they serve as a deterrent against future crimes of that nature anywhere in the world.”
The case of Srebrenica also puts a spotlight at the slow wheels of justice: As of last summer, only 14 individuals had been convicted of their involvement in the massacre. Radovan Karadzic, a former Bosnian Serb political leader and commander of military forces, was sentenced to 40 years in prison in March. But Karadzic and others are considered heroes by many Serbs, despite their proven crimes.
Those who have been prosecuted were all charged by an international court. The nationalist Serbian government has faced allegations of deliberately delaying trials in Serbia and attempting to slow down the U.N. tribunal based in the Netherlands.
“There is not a single aspect [of war crimes trials] without serious problems,” Milica Kostic of the Humanitarian Law Center recently said, according to the Associated Press.
On Tuesday, another landmark Serbian trial was postponed. The trial of eight former police officers who allegedly killed hundreds of people in the massacre will be a test of the country’s willingness to deliver justice. Relatives of victims have harshly condemned the fact that the eight defendants, who are Bosnian Serbs, are still not in custody.
More than two decades after the massacre, the people of Srebrenica still seek justice for the killings — and watch similar scenes unfold elsewhere in the world. Speaking to The Washington Post in 2012, Srebrenica survivor Emir Suljagic said: “It’s obvious that we live in a world where Srebrenicas are still possible. What’s happening in Syria today is almost identical to what happened in Bosnia two decades ago.”
Since that interview in 2012, at least 300,000 more people have died in Syria, according to U.N. estimates.