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Srebrenica holds painful lessons for victims of other ethnic cleansing campaigns

Unidentified corpses line the walls of an underground shelter at a morgue in Tuzla, Bosnia, in March 1997. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

More than 20 years ago, beginning on July 11, 1995, about 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serbs in the Srebrenica massacre. When the extent of the horrors become known, people around the world promised: never again.

But it has happened again. Many times, in fact.

On Wednesday, the United States described apparent state-backed violence against Burma's Rohingya Muslims as “ethnic cleansing.” The persecution there follows ethnic cleansing campaigns in recent years, including the Islamic State's killing of Yazidis, an ancient minority sect, in Iraq.

Srebrenica provides some indications of what might yet come in Syria and elsewhere: a decades-long continuation of hostilities in various ways and the refusal of perpetrators to fully acknowledge responsibility.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, former Bosnian Serb warlord Ratko Mladic was found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica and other crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The verdict — life in prison — marks the last major prosecution by tribunal, which the United Nations Security Council created more than two decades ago.

The sentence may be a major victory for those seeking justice, but it won't solve another pressing problem. The Hague-based court has continued to collect evidence of the massacre over the years, but Serbian denial is on the rise.

That denial extends deep into politics and is fueled by Russia, which said only two years ago that efforts to officially classify the massacre as a genocide were “politically motivated.”

Serbia's former president Tomislav Nikolic, who was in office until earlier this year, said the continued focus on the Srebrenica genocide was an attempt to “smear the entire Serbian nation as genocidal.”

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 a 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. 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.

“Justice for mass atrocities and genocide are incredibly important for a number of reasons,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “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 on the slow wheels of justice: As of summer 2015, 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 2016. Karadzic and others are considered heroes by many Serbs, despite their 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. “There is not a single aspect [of war crimes trials] without serious problems,” Milica Kostic of the Humanitarian Law Center said last year, according to the Associated Press.

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, hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria, according to U.N. estimates.

A version of this post was first published on Dec. 14, 2016. It was updated on Nov. 22, 2017.

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